Following his account of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2018, British conductor Daniel Harding has now released Mahler’s Fifth with the orchestra in what is billed to be a complete cycle on Harmonia Mundi. It’s a refreshing, detailed account of a symphony that – composed in the early years of the 20th century – has accumulated a lot of history.
Harding gives a broad, drawn out reading of the first movement’s funeral march, heralded as it is with its distinctive trumpet solo harking back to Mahler’s Fourth. The lyrical moments linger, with a hushed sense of longing, more plaintive than in recent accounts by Vänskä in Minnesota and Roth in Cologne – or indeed any of the historic recordings. But while it is broad, it is infused more with deeply felt gravitas than sluggishness, exuding a tangible, personal sense of grief that effectively offsets the dark ceremony and drama of the march itself.
“Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are for ever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment?” Mahler wrote to his wife, Alma. “What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breath-taking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?”
Harding and the orchestra capture these details with incredible clarity – hear the crisp brass of the second movement’s opening or the delicious pizzicati and sharp slaps of bassoon in the vast central Scherzo. The vitality of the Scherzo, swinging in its moments of joyful dance, is infectious (and the horn moments
are exquisitely rendered) before the symphony’s most famous movement, the Adagietto, strikes a reflective note.
Leonard Bernstein’s performance of the Adagietto at Robert Kennedy’s funeral and its subsequent use in the 1971 film Death in Venice has lent the movement’s strings-and-harp profoundly elegiac associations. But while Harding’s account – clocking in at over ten minutes – is by no means on the fast side, he draws a gentle, moving affection (and enchanting pianissimo sound) from the strings that argues for its interpretation, espoused by Harding’s mentor Rattle, among others, as a love song to Alma.
The finale is both radiant and ebullient, bringing to a close a magnificent performance by the Swedish orchestra.
While on the surface this reading may be clinical for some tastes, it wonderfully captures the detail, complexity and shifting moods of the symphony while building a convincing larger architecture – and shedding some of the Symphony’s baggage along the way. Harding offers a convincing account in a crowded marketplace – and what promises to be an exciting cycle well under way.
Composition: Symphony No 5
Performer: Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
Catalogue Number: Harmonia Mundi HMM902366