Zakee at Parlor
John Scofield at The Blue Note

Daniel Harding and Mahler's Tenth Symphony

by Michael Cirigliano II


Photo credit: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

The New York Philharmonic was in very capable hands Thursday night as British conductor Daniel Harding led them in a performance of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, the sole work of the evening. A former apprentice to both Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, Harding brought deep orchestral timbres to the Phil, helping the orchestra achieve an uncharacteristically rounded and warm sound. From the shadowy opening melody for unaccompanied viola to the rich string climaxes in the final movement, Harding elicited dynamic playing from the orchestra, with a minimum of podium movememt.

Left incomplete at the time of his death in 1911, the Tenth Symphony remained a large Adagio and a short accompanying Scherzo for the first decades of its performance history. Then, in the 1960s, the British scholar Deryck Cooke took up the charge of completing the work, which consisted of minor edits to the first two movements, as well as orchestrating all of the final three movements. Although satisfying as a testament to Mahler’s final days and musical thoughts, Cooke’s performing version often sounds thin and disjointed compared to the composer's completed works. 

Here, moments that usually sound like fragmented vignettes displayed body and direction under Harding's baton. In the heartbreakingly dismal first movement, as the orchestra erupted in a dissonant shriek led by Phil Smith's piercing trumpet, Harding’s motions were fluid, expressive, and surprisingly demure. The double basses brought a devilish feel to the end of the "Purgatorio," while the second Scherzo brought iciness from the brass and upper strings. Harding’s pacing in the final movement—creating long lines from Mahler’s fragmentary melodies of tuba, muted brass, and bass drum—was gripping. The return of the opening theme felt like an arrival point, with the viola’s quiet melody given to the horn section before being taken over by the strings and dying away into silence.

The Philharmonic players seemed pleased with the timbres Harding was able to muster. The strings coalesced evenly throughout, and the typically dry woodwinds floated above the thick textures, moving between cackling demonic figures and languid chorales. The blame for one of the only downsides of the evening must be placed on the horn section, which often sounded overbearing. Mahler’s symphonies are paramount to any orchestral horn player, but restraint and taste must be maintained, especially when the ability to hear the rest of the orchestra hinges on it.

There's one more performance of the Mahler 10 tonight at 8PM; tickets available at the box office or online.