Scaling the heights

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Wednesday April 4, 2018
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Scaling the heights

One of the great opening lines in literary letters of the "save for future publication" type is Lawrence Durrell's to Henry Miller: "I'm perched atop a fucking Alp." WWII was on, Miller was in LA between wives, and Durrell, whose true citizenship remains a matter of conjecture post mortem, was in Switzerland between war postings for the Brits and his own island getaway in Corfu. Count me among the Durrell sympathizers.

When SF Symphony performs Richard Strauss' "Alpine Symphony" April 12-14, both the conductor, Daniel Harding, and the soloist, Paul Lewis (in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto), are bona fide Brits making their much-belated Davies Hall debuts. Both musicians have announced their coming with new CDs.

My personal surrender to the opinion that the "Alpine Symphony," once a rarity in the U.S., ranks high if not at the peak of Strauss' orchestral works, began in Davies, with then-music director Herbert Blomstedt guiding the mountain-ready locals. Weeks later, after I had literally driven over the Alps to Bavaria in a rented aluminum cylinder on wheels, the program at the Munich Philharmonic was an "Alpine Symphony" with Blomstedt. I know when I'm beaten. (Location location location notwithstanding, the SF performance was superior.)

Particularly with a piece this descriptive and programmatic, the better you know it in advance, the better time you'll having scaling the heights. With no lack of thrills and chills, the piece feels long, oxygen frequently in short supply. I've climbed many more "Alpine"s since and can recommend no recorded "Alpine" more highly than Harding's, for Decca. It's worth the whole trip for the grinding final dissonance. But it's from 2014, so not news.

The news is Harding's extraordinary, just-released Mahler Ninth with his Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi). Allowing that Mahler's Ninth does not lack for superlative recordings, I'll wager I have most of the others, and this one won't leave my player.

Gratefully, Harmonia Mundi's engineers have found as much detail to capture as Harding has to coax from his splendid players. The symphony's blazing, biting moments have all the color you could stand, and the work's all-important sighs and whispers are there to provide their hushed, rapt perspective.

Interpretations of the Ninth are divided along a very wide spectrum, between the ones that view it as Romanticism's dizzying last gasp and the others who hear in it the composer's look into a probing, bleak new world where Romanticism lies slain. In the boldest sense, Harding demurs, with a reading that is as searchingly modern as any but whose wrenching emotional content does not rest even for the rests.

Harding's Ninth feels like nothing more than the movements of a human body, rallying between death throes and shrill, sardonic shouts. Much has been made of the opening Andante's heartbeat motif, a musical marker of the composer's keen awareness of his deadly heart condition. (He didn't live to hear the Ninth.)

Harding opens with what feels like a great exhalation, a collapsing, mordant echo of the Third Symphony's "O Mensch." The outer movements are a death rattle, punctuated by alarming utter silences and piercing outcries, surrendering only at the last moment.

The fight is where it should be, in the two middle movements, which Harding characterizes with hair-raising specificity. The second's folk-dance Landler, long a Mahler signature, oscillates between the affection for a lost love and the snarl of an old man banished once and for all from the dance. The Scherzo is glass shards shot at you by a bomb in the street outside. The brass and winds, splendid throughout, here snarl and hiss their contempt for the living.

It all unfolds in an unbroken arc from first note to last, fearless in its amphibian knack for changing character on a dime along the way. The music is a long series of perfectly judged phrases executed with the utmost rhythmic freedom, all subsumed into the vast expanse of the single trajectory that embraces all four movements.

Particularly in the warm, if sometimes incisive strings, the ever-present portamento - that equally unmistakable and undetectable connecting of notes by sliding to and from them - is the fine filament of sinew in the cartilage of the Ninth's architecture. This music is in every moment a still-breathing thing, reaching forward and back.

Lewis' most recent recording, also for Harmonia Mundi, won't be released until May (though don't be surprised to find him signing some in Davies), but it marks a new venture for him into the treasure troves of Haydn. There's no mistaking the keen insight and crackling wit Lewis learned from his mentor Alfred Brendel in this repertoire. But even at a time when Haydn piano recordings are flourishing, Lewis' has a freshness, vitality and directness of feeling the likes of which we haven't heard since his treasurable first Schubert CDs.