A young man's response to the idea of getting older is likely to be - in common with the healthy man's attitude to the inevitability of dying - a lust for life. This, above all, made Daniel Harding's reading of Mahler's valedictory 9th Symphony so compelling. To see this pale, slightly built, vulnerable-looking, young man stand before one of the most venerable and venerated orchestras in the world - the Staatskapelle Dresden - cannot begin to prepare you for what follows. Out of apparent contradiction comes breathtaking accord.
The celebrated mahogany sound, so familiar from performances here under veterans like Haitink and Colin Davis, assumes a scarifying astringency. Mahler's wind writing takes on a nightmarish immediacy. Woodwinds stretched to the extremes of their registers leap out at you like spooks in a freak show. The horns repeatedly switch from open to stopped sound, turning one of natures noblest sounds into one of its nastiest. If you've wondered if Mahler's extremes can ever be too extreme, then Harding's answer is an unequivocal "no".
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the performance was Harding's overwhelming sense of a harmonic language teetering on the brink of collapse. I don't think I've heard the inner-dissonance, the near-atonality, of the score quite so ruthlessly exposed. This was a dying man's dark night of the soul but one shot through with anger as much as fear, with determination as much as desperation. Harding's account of the second movement's mad ländler was gritty with abandon. This is dance music with attitude, and Harding and his string players pitched heavily into the downbeats - triple-time elegance supplanted by the two-left-feet school of dancing. It was invigorating.
So, too, the sinewy counter-point of the Rondo (Burleske), one of Mahler's most astonishing creations. Talk about wrestling with demons. This is the comedy of life in overdrive - a brutal baroque-like caprice as bracing as it is vindictive. Defiance in the face of death; music in rude health.
Perhaps there were moments in Harding's reading where spontaneity was inhibited by musical point-making; others where he so lost himself in the strangeness of Mahler's universe that the music came almost too close to static. I did feel that he needed to ease up on the string writing of the finale. There's a difference between aspirational and overwrought. Still, the final dissipation was memorable; the fade to black numbingly beautiful. Paradise found.Reuse content