The traditional analysis of Mahler interpretation is that performances fall either into the modernist camp, pointing up the garish, forward-looking aspects, or the gentler, classical Mahler, harking back to the Romantics.

But the Ninth Symphony, which Daniel Harding and the Dresden Staatskapelle brought to London on Wednesday, defies such easy concepts. A mixture
of apocalypse and reflection, it invites both the cerebral approach and the overtly emotional: each can be made to work in the context of the musical material and this symphony’s valedictory place in Mahler’s output.

Whatever camp a performance falls into, as with Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique the challenge is not to make the music sound self-regardingly death-fixated, but to communicate its raw energy and spiritual repose within a classical four-movement structure.

Give him another 20 years and Harding might conceivably formulate a view of the symphony that he is able to communicate. Conductor and orchestra instead went through the motions of a Mahler performance, and nothing happened. That is some achievement. The first movement is marked “andante comodo”, an easy walking tempo that spills over into allegro. In Harding’s hands it was a dirge-like shuffle – lethargic, listless, sluggish and rhythmically undernourished, with crescendos erupting out of nowhere.

The deliberately clumpish Ländler movement was more engaging – Harding is good at conducting the surface of the music – and the rondo-Burleske sounded authentically brash, despite the orchestra’s leaden textures (too inhibited in style for Mahler?) and numerous imprecisions.

Still, it would have been nice to have had a sense of where the music was taking us. The performance succeeded most where least harm can be done – in the unruffled finale, where the the orchestra’s fragrant string palette could belatedly come to the fore: bouquets to both violin sections and also to Erich Marchwart, principal horn.

I’m sure Harding will come good, but a performance like this makes a mockery of flying a reputable, 100-strong orchestra across Europe
for a single concert. It does Dresden no good and gives Harding an inflated sense of his place in the musical world. He needs to spend some time with third-rate orchestras and get to know the music properly, before exposing us – and himself – to this masquerade.

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