We all know the Vienna Philharmonic sound, don’t we – graceful, elegant and lush, the perfect accompaniment to a romantic Viennese evening? Anyone expecting that at the Proms last night was in for a shock: the beginning of Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 in A minor was raw and incisive, the orchestra driven hard by conductor Daniel Harding, the sound rugged almost to the point of raucousness.

Daniel Harding conducts the Vienna Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Harding conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It was a thrilling reading, with a pulse that grabbed hold of you and didn’t let go, although the movement as a whole was just a touch too frenetic. When it comes to the lyrical “Alma” theme, I would hope to be able to wallow for a moment in a bit of nostalgia, whereas Harding still kept things going forcefully. It wasn’t until the repeat of Alma’s theme on the violas that things relaxed slightly, and not until the slow movement that the strings changed tone and turned on the suave elegance for which they are famed.

For the whole length of the symphony, the Vienna Phil demonstrated, in case anyone had any doubts, that they are packed with star musicians. Pride of place went to the horn section. Never in memory have I been so thrilled by orchestral horn playing, both as an ensemble, where the sound was immensely rich and the power of perfect togetherness so evident, and the principal horn solos in the Andante simply blew me away. But there was an abundance of superb instrumental playing, from harps to muted trumpets to high ostinato strings to just about all of the extended woodwind section. The exception was in some of the percussion; the cowbells had a strangely thin sound, rather disconnected from the rest of the orchestra, especially when used off-stage, and the hammer blows, so famous in this symphony, didn’t quite have the force I would have hoped for.

Daniel Harding conducts the Vienna Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Harding conducts the Vienna Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Harding goes for Mahler’s revised version rather than the original, which means that the number of hammer blows is reduced from three to two (which puts him in line with the majority of conductors) and the order of the middle movements is Andante-Scherzo rather than Scherzo-Andante (which puts him in the minority). My personal preference is Scherzo-Andante: the release and relative optimism of the Andante all the more vivid when there have been two movements worth of being mercilessly pounded by the powers of fate, and it puts one in a better frame of mind for the lengthy tragic resolution in the finale. Others, no doubt, may differ.

With a total contrast in orchestral colour and mood from the first movement, the Andante showed Harding at his best, his body language easy to understand, his arm movements shaping the lyrical music in flowing arabesques. Although this isn’t a movement packed with tutti, the orchestra had no difficulty in filling the hall with its varied sound palette. Mahler creates a wide variety of “virtual instruments” by doubling up themes with various combinations. The principal horn player may have stood out from the pack, but deliriously lovely cor anglais and oboe solos were not far behind. By the middle of the movement, I had reached the blissful state of simply not wanting it to end.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

If the Scherzo in the Sixth is Mahler’s idea of a joke (as the Italian word implies), it’s a joke in highly dubious taste – sardonic, tortured, filled with despair. There were moments of lightness, particularly the classically elegant Trio and a gentle child-like section late in the movement, but we were rapidly back to raucous harshness, with braying timbre from horns and tuba. Here, perhaps, the forward movement flagged, but eventually, there was a satisfying return to the harmonies from the first movement.

A superb glissando and the ensuing quiet passage marked by low harp notes announced the slow build up to a series of heart-rending climaxes that is the fourth movement; a brass chorale leading to the huge major-minor chord pair – another throwback to the first – was particularly sublime. As each climax gave way to a reprise from pianissimo, the music became more intense until the symphony’s conclusion – everyone has their own idea of whether this is the depths of despair or whether Mahler has left room for optimism.