Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is one of those pieces to which the word ‘colossal’ seems insufficient. Though minuscule in length and forces compared to his Eighth, the sheer emotional range and harmonic sweep of his final complete symphony make it an emotionally draining experience for both orchestra and audience.
Paradoxically, it was the chamber-like qualities of the work that made this particular performance so special. Despite the monumentality of the work, much of the symphony is made up of orchestral solos that evolve into duets or trios, and only at critical moments in the work does Mahler have the entire orchestra playing at full blast. The LSO players, as expected, sounded marvellous, but it was Harding’s overall vision of the piece that brought the piece to its full emotional impact.
The first movement was perhaps the most eye opening – Harding took a noticeably faster tempo, and the many dynamic and tempo changes were less clearly delineated than usual. As a result, the famously episodic movement achieved a remarkable sense of coherence and restraint, with melodies flowing and surging into one another. The orchestra also played with an incredible unity in sound, making it impossible to tell where one instrument stopped and another started. Particularly striking was the ending of the movement, taken at a dangerously slow tempo. Though the woodwind intonation suffered slightly as a result, the tempo allowed the rhythmic and harmonic tensions of the score to truly stand out.
The second movement, in contrast to the first, was taken at a slower tempo than is typical. This relaxed pace allowed the coarse nature of the Ländler to come through, and contrasted effectively with the elegant waltz second theme. This was the movement that best allowed the orchestra to shine, with an incredible palette of colours ranging from sardonic to sophisticated to awkward, all within seconds of each other. Harding seemed to relish the contrast between themes, often to a fault – some of the tempo changes were so extreme that the transitions seemed a bit bumpy. The tempo changes of the third movement were navigated with much more finesse, resulting in a whirlwind of a rondo. Titled ‘Rondo-Burleske’, sarcasm and mockery always remained at the forefront, most notably in a saccharine slow section about two-thirds of the way through the movement. Harding retained tight control of the orchestra throughout, ensuring that the complex counterpoint could always be heard with precision and brilliance.
However, it was the fourth movement that elevated the performance to something truly special. Resisting the urge to overwork every phrase, Harding’s restrained interpretation was all the more moving. The orchestra adopted a lean rather than lush sound, allowing them to respond to the multitude of solos scattered throughout the movement. Particularly noteworthy were the woodwind solos, with scarcely an audible entrance to be heard and seeming to emerge out of nothing. Harding's emphasis on the dissonances resulted in a less richly sonorous sound than usual, but with Mahler's harmonic tension at the fore, it was viscerally intense. The final notes were followed by a silence that lasted seemingly forever – a fitting response to a truly remarkable performance.