MAHLER Symphony No 5 (Harding)
Bells up; with the greatest vehemence; hurriedly, ie carelessly throughout. Mahler’s Fifth is peppered with such imprecations, as well as bewilderingly inconstant changes of metre and tempo, which is why the piece can feel like an assault course – ‘too scherzoid’, as one of m’learned colleagues once put it to me. Daniel Harding’s strategy is not to duck the composer’s frequent recourses to extremity but to meet them head-on.
The opening funeral march is fairly dug out of sullen black earth. Harding sets an audaciously broad pace and hangs on to it for grim death. There is playing here of the greatest vehemence (Mahler’s marking for the second movement) and, in the Scherzo, Mariana depths of trenchancy pock-marked by col legno and timpani thwacks that should give good subwoofers a run for their money. Rubato tweaks to the pulse take place under the bonnet; what this Fifth has in spades is Schwung. Set against similarly proportioned, wholehearted and otherwise impressive recent accounts, the Swedish Radio Symphony players offer more energy and colour than the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker for Adám Fischer, and they are blessed with far more vivid and immediate recorded sound than the surprisingly muddy engineering allotted to the Gürzenich Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth.
A pitch-perfect Adagietto is sung tenderly as if in the midst of love and not death, but with the space both to impart natural-sounding portamento to its phrases and to plant a broad caesura of respite and reflection amid the symphony’s – and the performance’s – neurotic and finally euphoric turns of mood. It takes a particular, colloquial intelligence of phrasing not to let the finale lapse into garrulous or portentous triviality; its (studio-recorded) brass-led apotheosis arrives here with the kind of authentically live, cumulative impact that demands a headlong dash for the tape. In a market where modern rivals sound pedestrian or perfumed with finesse by comparison, this Fifth raises high hopes for what the graphic cover artwork implies may become a complete cycle.