Major vs minor: this basic oppositional pairing has had profound affective consequences for Classical music. Reductively, a major triad is often perceived as sounding ‘happier’ than its minor counterpart, and theorists have long noted that the former is the more ‘natural’ sonority, deriving as it does from the first few overtones from a fundamental pitch. Because of these psychoacoustic and cultural factors, it was once considered improper for a piece to end on a minor triad; hence the famous final Picardy third ubiquitous in the Baroque period, in which a major triad was used at the end of a minor-mode piece. In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, this idea of change of mode was magnified into a narrative journey encompassing the entire work, whereby an initial state of tension (C minor) was gradually overcome, leading to a triumphant close (C major).

Like every other 19th century composer, Mahler the symphonist was vitally aware of these precedents: in fact, the communicative power of his music depends on them. His Second and Fifth Symphonies, for instance, both trace a more complex version of this same journey. However, the Sixth is another matter. It starts out in a dark and ultra-rhythmic A minor, but within about a minute, the trumpets intone a piercingly loud A major triad which falls back to A minor as the sound decays. This major-to-minor figure, in microcosm, sums up the course of the symphony. Eventually, A major is established firmly enough to be the key in which the first movement finishes, but this does not presage its final victory. Instead, after countless twists and turns, including an A major section in the Finale which hints at a transcendent, otherworldly conclusion, Mahler undercuts the ‘normative’ trajectory by finishing in a hopeless A minor. This has won for the Sixth the soubriquet ‘Tragic’.

Having heard the Berlin Phil at least half a dozen times under a variety of conductors in the past few months, I feel this may have been their finest hour, or their finest 84 minutes, if one is being picky. Daniel Harding’s connection with the orchestra goes back two decades – he was Abbado’s assistant in the mid-90s – and although his substitution for the indisposed Kirill Petrenko occurred so late that it was only indicated by an insert into the programme, there was absolutely no sense of anything but unanimity between conductor and musicians. Harding’s gestures met with immediate and vivid responses, and the many treacherous tempo changes were navigated almost immaculately. With the exception of a slight asynchrony between cellos and basses in the first bars, the first movement was tight and driven in the martial sections, while the famous ‘Alma’ second theme (identified by the composer’s wife in her memoirs as a portrait of her) was on the steady end of the spectrum for a melody marked Schwungvoll (full of verve). During the quiet oasis in the central part, I (like Christopher Walken in the legendary comedy sketch) could have done with more cowbell; at least, the ‘Herdenglocke’ are more audible on the recordings with which I’m familiar.

After the thunderous elation of the end of the first movement, the second movement opened with something completely different: a subdued lyrical theme, barely a thread of sound from the strings, and yet everything was audible. Minor and major are heart-breakingly juxtaposed here, as in Mahler’s contemporary song-cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children). One was vividly aware how closely the players were listening to each other, especially as they eased into the delicate C major section. When the music eventually opened up in passionate abandon, it felt the more effective because of the earlier restraint. The final chord was simply magical. Like his former mentors Abbado and Rattle, Harding opted for the Andante-Scherzo ordering of the middle movements, and the scherzo was performed with an earthy intensity, save in the cheekier episodes. 

Despite his many years as a conductor in the opera house, Mahler never wrote an original work for the stage. His symphonies nevertheless abound in dramatic effects, from off-stage instruments to horns turning their bells in the air. His greatest visual coup de theatre is found in the Finale of this symphony: two hammer blows, often viewed as prophetic of the personal traumas he would undergo in 1907. The cymbal player who wielded the enormous wooden mallet at two different climax points was the cynosure of all eyes. This enormous finale was beyond praiseworthy: there were superlative solos in the quiet sections, lyrical lines even in loud parts, beautifully judged crescendos, and a strong sense of narrative arc. The final limping brass dirge sounded bathetic after the storm of emotion we’d been through, with the last fortissimo A-minor chord shocking in its suddenness. To paraphrase Schumann's famous review of Chopin, Hut ab (hats off): a truly epic performance of this complex work.