Daniel Harding’s Vivid Mahler with the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Miah Persson (soprano), Anna Larsson (alto), London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus / Daniel Harding (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 5.6.2016. (JPr)

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, ‘Resurrection’

In November 2003 a full page in the programme at the Royal Festival Hall for the late Gilbert Kaplan’s London concert announced the recent ‘première’ recording by Deutsche Grammophon of ‘the new official score’ of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the same conductor and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Literature was available on the night from the music publishers (Universal Edition) and The Kaplan Foundation about ‘this new release … [and] … new performance material on the night.’ Kaplan was conducting the Philharmonia, he was signing copies of the CD release after the performance, interviews had been published in the national press, he gave an enlightening pre-concert lecture about Mahler, he had written an informative programme note – but nowhere – no where – in what could be read ‘on the night’ was there anything to make anyone expect they were not hearing that new version. There was a full house present with a considerable number definitely also under this similar misapprehension. It transpired that it was the ‘regular’ version of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (albeit with a few tweaks) that had been been played. The inability to obtain the required orchestral parts was cited but was hardly credible. In fact, Seen and Heard’s own editor at the time, Marc Bridle, was one of the few to be let into this ‘secret’ because in an interview with Gilbert Kaplan prior to this event the conductor revealed the concert with the Philharmonia was not to be the new edition because ‘The recording with the Vienna Philharmonic was made by entering about 500 corrections into their parts, and it’s the feeling … that the first live performance should be with printed parts.’ On the night it was clear that DG had made the best of its marketing opportunity.

Moving forward two years to October 2005 I was at the Royal Albert Hall with Kaplan, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and presumably the now ‘printed parts’ for positively the ‘World Première Performance of the Revised Critical Edition’ and DG was on show once again with a signing session by the conductor at the end of the concert. Subsequent to this I have often wondered what became of this critical edition because I cannot remember having seen it referred to in programme notes since 2005 … until now. The audience for this performance of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony were reminded how Gilbert Kaplan (who died earlier this year) had a ‘life-long obsession with the piece, which he also conducted regularly with many of the world’s top orchestras (including the LSO, whose recording of the work with Kaplan is the best-selling Mahler recording in history). In fact it was the only piece in the repertoire of this self-proclaimed “amateur”, who would conduct the piece from memory because of his lack of ability in reading music.’

As another self-proclaimed amateur myself I cannot, unfortunately, give an academic discourse on the changes in the music. There are really no new melodies here and as I read in 2005 it just involves ‘wrong notes, omitted notes, notes mistakenly assigned to the wrong instrument, wrong tempo indications, inaccurate dynamics, missing accents, misplaced crescendos and diminuendos, and confusing instructions’. These cover some 41 pages of a report that often has 20 or more comments per page. Kaplan and his co-editor Renate Stark-Voit consulted 14 original sources and Mahler’s own score ‘reworked’ until 1910, within a year of the composer’s premature death. Mahler probably made changes to this Second Symphony over, and between, the 10 times he conducted it in public. That was how he thought it should sound at that time but who knows where later revisions would have taken this symphony had the composer lived longer. (Wagner died still believing he owed the world his Tannhäuser, a work he had originally composed nearly 40 years earlier and he was still not happy with.) But the plot thickens because although we never hear much about what version of the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is being performed – speaking to Daniel Harding after this concert – apparently it is more than likely this Stark-Voit/Kaplan critical edition unless the conductor has his own ideas.

This ‘Resurrection’ Symphony could never be as good as the one I heard recently at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (review) but in the end it ran it very close. Daniel Harding’s performance with the London Symphony Orchestra never seemed to draw breath but at 85 minutes was not especially fast. There was only a momentary pause between the First and Second Movements because the soloists did not need to enter as they were already sitting with the chorus and, thankfully, the orchestra did not need to re-tune as some do. Harding, the LSO’s Principal Guest Conductor, drew some gripping playing from the orchestra during the opening Allegro maestoso. This alternates between a darkly pessimistic funeral march and a more elaborately optimistic sonata-allegro movement. At the start, through tensely quiet tremolos, the growling cellos and basses erupt with bursts of abrupt phrases. Mahler wanted this music to be played ‘ferociously’ and under Harding they certainly were. What was clear right from the start was how good the conductor would be in revealing the layout and structure of each movement. In the episodic Allegro he made the direction of phrases and their connection (what leads to what) especially clear and there were no jarring gear changes. When the music turned cataclysmic, as in the deafening build-up before the recapitulation – so deafening that here and elsewhere the two soloists amusingly resorted to sticking fingers in their ears – the playing had all the visceral intensity any diehard Mahlerian would wish.

The bucolic Ländler-like second movement had a natural lilting grace that almost had the conductor dancing on the podium. In the third movement, an expansion of Mahler’s Wunderhorn song where St. Anthony’s gives a sermon to the fishes, Harding upped the whimsy quotient but a sardonic and mysterious undercurrent was never far away and as most know the goal of this movement is what Mahler called the ‘death shriek’. Here, it got plenty of orchestral clout, but it was equally impressive how Harding encouraged the orchestra to die away. Alto Anna Larsson began the concertante-style fourth movement (a sublime setting of Ulricht) in wonderfully hushed fashion but later the maturity of her dark sounding voice jarred a little for me.

This was just a moment of calm before the storm of the finale which schizophrenically shifts from expressions of frenzy to Klopstock’s words from his resurrection poem (‘Rise again, yea, rise again shall thou/My mortal dust, after brief repose!’) sung – when this eventually came – with the chorus seated. Ushered in by an offstage band and subsequent fanfares (which did not work as well in the smaller Barbican Hall compared to the Royal Albert Hall) we were drawn exultantly onward toward the inevitable choral closing section, which was positively heaven-sent when it finally arrived. This is a stretch for any choir to perform convincingly given the exceptionally wide vocal range, but the tension was so deftly and powerfully built throughout that it didn’t seem to test the London Symphony Chorus whatsoever. It is one of the more climactic endings in the symphonic repertoire, and in Harding’s hands was supremely thrilling. ‘I shall die, in order to live!’ the chorus sang and the point was well made. All the performers – and many in the audience from the ovation which followed – were palpably swept up in the music: the excellent chorus; Anna Larsson; soprano Miah Persson who sang expressively; and the impeccable London Symphony Orchestra.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the LSO visit http://lso.co.uk/.

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