This week saw the London Symphony Orchestra perform two of the peaks of the late romantic repertoire, Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony under Bernard Haitink on 23 October and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony under Daniel Harding in this concert. Such a schedule does not leave much time to prepare a symphony as long and complex as the Ninth for performance, and no doubt explains why there was no other work on the programme. It perhaps also explains the slight lack of polish in the playing (notably the brass) that was apparent from time to time. Nevertheless, this was for the most part an excitingly played and moving account of arguably Mahler’s greatest symphony.
Harding’s pacing of the first movement, marked Andante Comodo, was marked by a considerable freedom of tempo, occasionally verging on impetuousness. Slower passages often featured a feeling of world-weariness, although there were times when Harding’s approach skirted the edge of sounding laboured. On the other hand, climactic passages brought an urgency and intensity entirely at one with the life-and-death struggle inherent in the music. The eeriness of Mahler’s scoring was also strongly conveyed, the writing for muted brass in particular sounding both atmospheric and menacing. However, the level of tension seemed to drop slightly during the latter part of the movement, and a degree more poetry would not have gone amiss in the coda.
The performance of the second movement, a combination of Ländler (an Austrian country dance) and waltz, took a while to come to life, the contrasting sections ideally needing a greater sense of characterisation and involvement. The interpretation of the third movement Rondo-Burleske was much more successful, however, the orchestra articulating Mahler’s complex contrapuntal writing with real panache and generating a considerable degree of excitement. The movement’s lyrical D major interlude was especially moving, the first trumpet adopting a surprising amount of vibrato but playing with great virtuosity and the strings providing both warmth and intensity.
The strings were again on top form for the Adagio, the antiphonal placement of the violins helping create the impression of a giant chamber ensemble. The opening was elegiac rather than tragic, and an element of restraint was notable in the performance as a whole, but the luminosity of the playing was more than ample compensation. The daringly slow and hushed interpretation of the coda was rewarded by the quietest audience I’ve ever heard. Were it not for a few errant watch chimes, it would have been entirely possible to imagine there was no audience at all. The end of the symphony was very moving. It was a measure of the atmosphere in the hall at this moment that a full forty seconds passed from the fade of the music into silence before anyone dared applaud.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.