Mahler Festival Leipzig: Harding – Mahler Chamber Orchestra – Fourth Symphony

Mahler: Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor) Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 25.5.2011 (JFL)

Mahler: Symphony No.4, 5 Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


There are many reasons why a Mahler performance might not touch one in concert; Mahler-fatigue being among the more realistic after such heavy exposure in so little time as the Mahler Festival Leipzig offered. I was at or near that point, last Wednesday… and that despite skipping three performances; sadly missing the opening and closing concert of the Gewandhaus under Chailly—M2, M8—and the Vienna Philharmonic in M9. [You can watch these performances for a few days on MDR’s dedicated website.] Either that, or something was off with Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Blumine, the movement Mahler soon chucked out of the First Symphony, Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs with soprano Mojca Erdmann, and especially the Fourth Symphony.

In my venture to hear Mahler from all sides, I had sat in different spots in the Gewandhaus for every concert, and this time I opted to sit behind the orchestra; right on the corner between the chorus stands under the organ and the lobster claws that reach around the left and right side of the orchestra.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.4, 5 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn,
D.Harding / D.Röschmann / MCO
(R.Chailly’s favorite)
available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.4,
Haitink / C.Schäfer / RCO
Mahler in Leipzig on S&H: 
Sy. No.3 / Dresden St.Kap. / Salonen
Sy. No.10 / MDRSO / Märkl
Das Lied / Concertgebouw / Luisi
Sy. No.7 / BRSO / Nezét-Séguin
Sy. No.1 / LSO / Gergiev
Sy. No.5 / NY Phil / Gilbert
Sy. No.6 / Tonhalle / Zinman

The all around excellent acoustic of the Gewandhaus held up here, too…with Blumine—in a succession of lovely moments strung together—coming through as nicely shimmering, with silver violins, great detail, and no section unduly muffled or exaggerated. But once voices come into play, matters are different. Mojca Erdmann could not be heard, or to the extent she could be heard, it was cavernous reverb that gave one only the vaguest idea of what earnest Mlle. Erdmann was singing about. The little that came through, despite the ever-keen attention that Daniel Harding lavished on her, sounded like pouty-mouthed naïveté, pseudo-innocent, and shockingly banal. Clearly an unfair judgment to make on such distorted evidence, which is why I opted for a prime, elevated orchestra seat in the second half, so that I may hear more of her, and hear that better.

That I wouldn’t hear much more revealed the petite size of her voice… but at least her perfectly honed, bell-like tone now came through. The clear, even naïve element worked much better in the angelic “Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden” than the other, earthier or ironic Wunderhorn songs… but it was still brought down by a uniform blandness that seemed over-pronounced and micromanaged… in other words: too consciously done well: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The technical aplomb of the orchestra, which each section in itself offering something impressive (the horns a little less, the trumpets a little more, the winds a little shrill), its transparency, and fine solos (from the first violinist in particular), were too heterogeneous to ever quite come together. Moments of true individual wit amused… but a less generous instinct within me thought them rather self-conscious. The third movement, gorgeous music gorgeously played, lacked the tension to make it even more compelling, and as a colleague aptly quipped afterwards, the whole show, though first-rate, felt a little like a Ländler as performed by the Aristocats… very, very dainty and well-bred. A little more grit and grime would have suited Harding’s Mahler well… but then a little more grit and grime would suit almost anything Harding does well.