The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra used to appear regularly at the Barbican, but it’s been six years since its last visit. A pair of concerts conducted by Daniel Harding was a reminder of what we have been missing from one of the world’s finest orchestras. If the first of their two programmes was a rather regulation pairing of Brahms and Beethoven, then the second focused on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and also provided a reminder that the RCO’s Mahlerian pedigree is second to none. It more than underlined Harding’s excellence as a Mahler interpreter too.
An odd coincidence, but the three finest accounts of Mahler’s Ninth that I’ve ever heard live, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink and Claudio Abbado, were all given in the Barbican, and it’s a measure of the quality of this performance that it invited comparisons with any of those. If Bernstein’s approach, and to a less histrionic extent Haitink’s too, was very much to regard the Ninth as one of the last flowerings of 19th-century romanticism, then Abbado’s looked in the opposite direction, aware that the symphony was contemporary with the early works of Schoenberg and his pupils, and had been completed just four years before the premiere of The Rite of Spring.
Harding took the modernist line, bringing a real expressionist edge to the great climaxes of the opening movement, each of which seemed fiercer than the last, a deliberately lumpen coarseness to the second-movement Ländler, and sardonic savagery to the Rondo-Burleske. That allowed him to lay out in gorgeous spacious paragraphs – the RCO strings at their richest, the woodwind effortlessly eloquent – bringing the intense symphonic journey full circle. The total silence after the last ebbing chord, faultlessly observed in the hall, told its own story.
Before the symphony Harding had conducted the UK premiere of Rick van Veldhuizen’s Mais le corps taché d’ombres, commissioned by the RCO as a companion piece to the Ninth. With a title taken from a poem by Jean Genet, it’s scored for strings and harp, creating a glassy sound world of tangled harmonics and irregular pizzicato attacks, out of which hints of Mahlerian melody gradually emerge and then disappear again. Apparently it’s a reflection on the Ninth’s sense of finality, but the real thing did it overwhelmingly better.