Jhe Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performed regularly at the Barbican, but it has been six years since his last visit. A pair of concerts led by Daniel Harding was a reminder of what one of the best orchestras in the world lacked. If the first of their two programs was a rather regulatory couple between Brahms and Beethoven, the second focused on by Mahler Ninth Symphony and also recalled that the RCO’s Mahlerian pedigree is unrivalled. This more than underscored Harding’s excellence as an interpreter of Mahler.
A strange coincidence, but the three best retellings of Mahler’s Ninth I’ve ever heard live, directed by Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado, were all given in the Barbican, and it is a measure of the quality of this performance that she has invited comparisons with any of them. If Bernstein’s approach, and to a lesser extent that of Haitink, was to consider the Ninth as one of the last flowerings of nineteenth-century romanticism, that of Abbado looked in the opposite direction, aware that the symphony was contemporary. early works. by Schoenberg and his pupils, and had been completed only four years before the premiere of The Rite of Spring.
Harding adopted the modernist line, bringing a genuinely expressionistic touch to the great high points of the first movement, each sounding fiercer than the last, a deliberately crude coarseness to the second movement Ländler, and a sardonic savagery to the Rondo-Burleske. This allowed him to have beautiful, spacious paragraphs – the RCO strings at their richest, the effortlessly eloquent woodwinds – completing the intense symphonic journey full circle. The total silence after the last descending chord, perfectly observed in the room, told its own story.
Prior to the symphony, Harding had conducted the UK premiere of Rick van Veldhuizen’s But the Shaded Body, commissioned by the RCO as a complement to the Ninth. With a title taken from a poem by Jean Genet, it is scored for strings and harp, creating a glassy sonic world of tangled harmonics and irregular pizzicato attacks, from which notes of Mahlerian melody gradually emerge and then fade away. new. Apparently it’s a reflection on the meaning of the Ninth’s purpose, but the real thing did it vastly better.