Staatskapelle Dresden/Harding, Barbican Hall London<br/> LSO/Davis &amp; Emanuel Ax, Barbican Hall London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In an essay marking the 25th anniversary of Mahler's death, Theodor Adorno wrote that Mahler's music was "the first to substantiate the recognition that the fate of the world is no longer dependent on the individual." Though the violent sarcasm of his scherzi prefigures that of Wozzeck, I'm not convinced of his pre-eminence in this respect. (What about Winterreise?) Even so, the air of spiritual isolation in his later symphonies explains both the surge of popularity his work enjoyed in the latter half of the century scarred by totalitarianism of one shade or another, and the reverence in which it has been held by generations of gloomy teenagers, myself included.

Perhaps inevitably, Daniel Harding's performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Staatskapelle Dresden took me back to the bedroom in which I sulked for most of my adolescence, listening to Kubelik's Mahler, and writing bad poetry. As the violas murmured beneath the dying falls of the second violins, I could almost smell the Anne French Cleansing Milk. Lebewohl! Lebewohl! Then, as the first of many discrepancies in the orchestra's intonation swept over the hall like a wave of nausea, and the ponderousness of Harding's interpretation revealed itself, I realised I was more moved by memories of listening to the symphony on vinyl in the 1980s than I was by hearing it live in 2007.

In the same 1936 essay, Adorno argued that "every work of Mahler's... is saying farewell." This is broad-brush work, but in the case of the Ninth it is true. This was Mahler's last completed symphony, written after the diagnosis of the heart condition that would prove fatal and the bitter discovery of his wife's affair with Walter Gropius, and is unmitigated by the peace of mind that eased his sketches for the Tenth Symphony. But if Harding conveyed the composer's misery, it was at the expense of the clarity he valued in his own, and others', music.

As farewells go, this was a long one. Though the smoky sensuality of the Staatskapelle's strings was attractive, their beauty was undermined by a pungent undercurrent of poor intonation from the contrabassoon, the double-basses, and the harps, like the buzz of a loose-fitting sash-window when a lorry is idling outside. Exquisite individual contributions from the flute, oboe, principal cello, and first violinist, and shrill protests from the clarinet and piccolo failed to cohere, the textures coagulated, the motifs vaporised, and Mahler's careful exposition dissolved into a late-Jamesian fog of sub-clauses and qualifications.

In the rough Scherzo, the Staaatskapelle were most convincing, digging hard with the heels of their bows. But the cluttered sound of the first Allegro was more pronounced in the Rondo Burleske, and Harding allowed little air into the spaces between the notes. By contrast, the fragmented cadences of the final movement were stretched so inexorably that I was desperate for the flatline bleep of the life support machine to kick in long before the final sigh of the last bar. It is seldom illuminating to judge a living artist by the work of a dead one, but where Kubelik closes at 77 minutes, Harding pulled the symphony to order at nearly 90. Could any orchestra make sense of this work at these tempi? I doubt it.

If Harding's Mahler opened to an air of semi-religious fervour, the atmosphere at Sir Colin Davis's concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and Emanuel Ax was quite different. Instead of revelation or transfiguration, Davis's audience wanted his Mozart to be unchanged, which it was. Though his near-contemporary Sir Charles Mackerras has absorbed and even instigated changes in performance practice, Davis conducts Mozart with the same smooth brilliance as he did long before I first mooned over Mahler. Like toasted crumpets and crossword puzzles, it is an uncontroversial pleasure.

Of course, the LSO could play this repertoire in their sleep. Hence the Haffner Symphony ticked along without breaking into sweat, offsetting an under-articulated bass line with ravishingly sculpted melodies and a Menuetto solicitous of the plumpest dancer. Ax's account of the Piano Concerto in E flat (K482) was likewise a model of poise, thoughtfully phrased, beautifully weighted, and unfailingly generous to the orchestra.

A flawless account of Elgar's Enigma Variations followed, and though the hushed opening of "Nimrod" threatened to stall, the vivacity of "Dorabella" and the humour of "GRS" were touching. I still can't decide if this sepia-tinted work has any real substance or whether a strong emotional response to Elgar is programmed into British babies in the delivery room, but, since 2007 is the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth, this year will offer many opportunities for further examination.