Those looking for a spacious, sentimental reading of Mahler’s Second Symphony should best shy away from Daniel Harding’s performances. Harding’s brisk, often brutal interpretation of what is perhaps one of Mahler’s most indulgent works with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was visceral and impressive, if not altogether satisfying.

Anna Larsson © Askonas Holt
Anna Larsson
© Askonas Holt
Despite a mightily impressive opening flourish from the lower strings, the orchestra seemed off their customary form for the first movement. Most notably, brass intonation seemed a recurring issue, with the repeated trumpet triads at the end of the movement sounding increasingly off each time. More worryingly, Harding’s quick tempi robbed the strings of space, resulting in a dry, brittle sound throughout. Nevertheless, the winds were on characteristically brilliant form, with each successive solo finding an appropriately Mahlerian range of colours. Kudos, as well, to Harding for choosing to observe Mahler’s denoted pause following the first movement, though I doubt that a sudden symphony of coughing accompanied by latecomers rushing into the hall was quite the effect Mahler had in mind.

Thankfully, the successive movements proved far more satisfying, starting with a gorgeously lush Ländler. In the opening, the strings achieved a dark, opaque sound that slowly unfurled into a glorious, sunny lyricism from the entire orchestra. Though the highly tuneful second movement is often seen as a nostalgic contrast to the angst-ridden first movement, Harding emphasized the ominous nature of the movement, with unsettling pianissimo triplets from the first violins. This was rudely interrupted by the shockingly loud timpani entrance to the third movement scherzo, which proceeded at such a pace that the orchestra seemed hardly able to keep up at times. Though Harding clearly delineated the various characters of the movement, from grotesque to triumphant to luxuriant, the movement overall felt rather disjointed, with little attempt to link these various sections together.

Out of the intended chaos of the Scherzo emerged Anna Larsson’s Urlicht, utterly spellbinding in its stillness and depth. Once again, Harding’s quick tempi robbed the movement of some of its luminous serenity, but Larsson’s obvious experience and connection to the text resulted in a strikingly intimate, almost conversational experience. Larsson was well matched by fellow Swede Miah Persson in the fifth movement finale, whose soaring entrances demonstrated beyond doubt that she has progressed beautifully past her Susanna and Zerlina days. Following a slightly suspect orchestral opening, with some rather perilous entrances in the offstage band, the London Symphony Chorus entered almost imperceptibly, demonstrating ideal control under the excellent guidance of Simon Halsey. The final pages of the symphony were suitably transcendent, with orchestra, soloists, and chorus filling the hall with blazing sound.