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Friday, March 4, 2011

Concert Review: Dancing With the Decadence Dance

Daniel Harding conducts Mahler's Fourth; Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1.
Daniel Harding. Photo by Eisuke Miyoshi © 2010
Daniel Harding made an auspicious New York Philharmonic debut this week, conducting a program that glittered with that peculiar decadence that defines the late Romantic works written in the early 20th century. Friday's afternoon concert featured Karol Szymanowski's one-movement First Violin Concerto, paired with Mahler's Fourth Symphony.

Szymanowski is an underperformed composer from Poland who was instrumental in that country's musical development. It is rare to hear his works performed, but each exposure offers a feast of brilliant instrumental writing and rich harmonies. This performance allowed long-serving Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow to shine in the solo part.

This work concentrates the thought and effort of three whole movements into 26 minutes of lush orchestral landscapes. Through this, the violin part wanders, drinking in the shimmering meadow of strings, the bird-calls in the (tripled) woodwinds, and the mighty mountains of brass. Mr. Dicterow was eloquent in his solo phrases and cadenzas, travelling through these vast sonic lands and maintaining a solid sense of narrative with his instrument.

In a season that has seen a lot of Mahler's symphonies (2010 and 2011 mark the composer's 150th birthday and the centennial of his death) Daniel Harding's interpretation of the Fourth Symphony stands out. The Fourth is Mahler's shortest symphony. The last of the Wunderhorn cycle, it Janus-like, looking back with quotes from the first three symphonies, and forward with a hint of the opening theme of the Fifth in its first movement.

That opening Allegro was unsentimental, yet respectful of what Mahler wrote in the score. This movement is a sort of rondo, puncuated by sleigh bells, woodwind obbligatos and an heroic phrase for the principal trumpet. Mr. Harding captured the dance rhythms of the movement, taking the delicate coda at a pianissimo of whispered strings.

The Fourth is at heart a symphony about death, particularly the death of children, a theme that Mahler would explore in his later works including the Kindertotenlieder. The second movement saw Ms. Staples competing with principal horn Philip Myers in a folksy scherzo which evokes the demonic figure of Freund Hein, a version of the Grim Reaper from German folk-lore. This dance of death, (played on a violin tuned a step high)  gave way to spectacular brass playing from the Philharmonic forces. Mr. Harding showed easy command of Mahler's tricky rhythms, and kept the overall sense of sardonic humor squarely to the fore.

The Adagio is tough going even for the most hardened Mahlerians, and can, in the hands of a lesser conductor, merely put the audience to sleep until the final movement. That was not the case here, as Mr. Harding used this movement to give vent to Mahler's grief. This movement was taken at a very slow, funereal tempo. It became a solemn march led by the principal cellos. Mahler, ever the master of tweaking symphonic forms, wrote this slow movement in the A-B-A form of a scherzo, and the central section brought the brass to the fore in a chest-beating display of anguish and loss before the cellos returned to their sad, noble theme.

Mr. Harding took an innovative approach to the final movement, with its soprano part evoking the joys of a child's view of heaven. Sung with hushed reverence by soprano Lise Milne, the orchestral interjections eschewed the usual sugary sweetness that gives this work its lightweight reputation. They were forceful and brash, evoking the terrors of the next world. Mr. Harding's refreshing approach reminded the listener of the central tragedy of the Fourth: these children can only describe heaven because they are, in fact, dead.

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