First published in The Herald on 20 August, 2016
Mahler had dark things on his mind while he was writing his Ninth Symphony in 1909-10. Antisemitism had cost him his job at the Vienna Court Opera, his daughter had died of diphtheria and he had developed a heart condition that meant he wouldn’t live to hear a full performance of the score. The epic emotional gamut in the music — despair, resignation, twisted nostalgia, nihilism — eventually trails off into a silence that feels like the bleakest oblivion or the sweetest transcendence or, if you’re Adorno, like simply “peering questioningly into uncertainty.”
How can a conductor even get close to all this? There was much to admire about the considered and very unhistrionic way that Daniel Harding navigated the great anguished swells, about the cleanliness of his gestures and the cool logic of his pacing. And there was plenty of fine playing from the Swedish orchestra of which he is Music Director: that fine-tuned elasticity that comes from excellent ensemble discipline. What I missed was the darker stuff. There was no danger, dirt or fury. The ländler second movement was refined and charming; every climax felt controlled, every collapse had a safety net. The finale’s strings sounded burnished, expensive, with no chinks of fragility or brokenness. It was a very dignified vision of the end — touching, but never devastating.
There was dignity, too, plus playfulness and brio in the performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto that opened the concert. This is not Daniil Trifonov’s home territory but the Russian piano phenomenon made it all joyous: bright, singing melodies, spirited ornaments, properly dramatic loud-soft sforzandos, hints of the expansiveness to come in Beethoven’s later works.