Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The RCO, under Harding’s expert baton, delivers a Mahler 9 for the ages

5 November 2022

Six years is too long for this great Dutch orchestra to be absent from the capital.

Daniel Harding

Daniel Harding & the RCO (Photo: Mark Allan)

It’s six years since the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) last made the journey to these shores from their home city of Amsterdam, and this exemplary concert at the Barbican showed what we’ve been missing. There were two works on the programme – the UK premiere of mais le corps taché d’ombres (but the body stained with shadows) by Dutch composer Rick van Veldhuizen and Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 – bound together by the themes of life and death, and beauty and pain. Designed as a companion piece to the Mahler, and commissioned by the RCO and the Mahler Foundation, van Veldhuizen’s 15 minute work for string orchestra (plus harps) juxtaposes 70s’ disco with contrapuntal writing influenced by Berg and Ligeti. 

As in all the recent contemporary work I’ve seen, string glissandi featured prominently, alongside plenty of violent pizzicato, and the occasional Mahlerian sweep. It was expertly played and all the elements were precisely controlled by Daniel Harding on the podium, but whether it added anything or deepened our understanding of the symphony that followed was questionable.

Does Mahler’s Ninth Symphony represent the closing chapter of Romanticism, or is it more of a forward-looking work that anticipates Schönberg, Berg and Webern? The answer to that, based on this incandescent performance, is probably both. The RCO has a Mahler tradition stretching back further than most orchestras, and it’s no coincidence that the great, late Bernard Haitink was at the helm for many years. They have this music in their bones, and we’ve been blessed in this country with several outstanding performances of this unique and powerful symphony – most notably by Haitink and the LSO on two occasions (Proms 2009 and Barbican 2017). But this was one of those rare evenings in the concert hall where conducting and playing coalesced to deliver a performance so overwhelming in its intensity, that we were left shaken and moved at the close.

“…expertly played and all the elements were precisely controlled by Daniel Harding…”

Daniel Harding

Daniel Harding (Photo: Mark Allan)

From those first, hesitant notes at the start which, according to Leonard Bernstein, represent the composer’s irregular heartbeat, which then flower into the first theme on the strings, it was clear that Harding had already grasped the scope of the work. The way this movement went on to blossom over its 30 minute length gave notice of an expert Mahlerian – climaxes were bold and visceral in their power – Harding piling on the pressure as the movement unfurled. Despite this, it never felt driven, nor did he harry his players. Indeed he drew some glorious playing from the strings, whose rich velvety sound is a thing of wonder.

In the second movement, there was enormous vitality in what transpired to be a slightly unerring, dark interpretation of the Ländler, woodwind very much to the fore, playing with pinpoint accuracy and clarity, while the third, Rondo Burleske, had a caustic quality that never shied away from the ferocity of the orchestral writing. Harding’s fluent yet incisive conducting style came to the fore here, and all the players responded accordingly, rounding off the movement with a shattering climax. After that, the achingly beautiful fourth movement provided some much needed balm and solace. The strings had sheen and depth while the climaxes, where the themes reappear from the start of the symphony, exuded a sense of desolation that chimed perfectly with Harding’s exemplary view of the work. Those hushed, descending musical lines that draw the work to its close have never felt more valedictory, and held the audience spellbound. The silence after the final notes had drifted away spoke volumes – none of us dared blink, let alone move. In every respect this was an outstanding interpretation – exquisitely played, and stunningly well conducted, which will live long in the memory. I certainly hope we don’t have to wait another six years for our Dutch friends to pay us another visit.

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