Magazine article The Spectator

Young Blood

Magazine article The Spectator

Young Blood

Article excerpt

It isn't often that an artist can celebrate a personal triumph when the audience is mystified, and the critics hostile, but that was the measure of Daniel Harding's achievement after he conducted the first Vienna performance of Gustav Mahler's Tenth Symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic, Mahler's own orchestra, took to the young Englishman with such warmth that one sensed that a striking new musical partnership may in time emerge.

Certainly Harding would do well to ignore the snide reviews of local critics, who gave the impression that the noble Musikverein was no place to greet a symphony left in sketch form (apart from the first movement) upon Mahler's death in 1911, and 'finished' five decades later by the English music scholar and critic Deryck Cooke. Nor were they sure that another Englishman, and a man of only 29 summers, to boot, should have been entrusted with its first performance in the city where Mahler's word was writ (until they kicked him out, of course: heroism in the Imperial City has only ever had provisional status, and reputations are amended here, as perhaps nowhere else).

But, finally, in the long campaign to have Mahler's last work recognised as an authentic symphony, the last citadel has fallen. Leonard Bernstein, who enjoyed a special relationship with this marvellous orchestra, would not perform it. Nor would two other notable Mahlerians, Claudio Abbado and Bernard Haitink, who have lengthy Viennese associations. Simon Rattle could not manage the trick, either. So it was left to his protégé, young Harding of Oxford, to introduce this great, searing work to musicians who, to their credit, jumped a fence at which others have baulked.

In Vienna, although the musicians were breaking new ground, they were prepared to follow Harding, who has spent much of the past year conducting the symphony throughout Europe and North America. And he was rewarded by a public handshake from the concert master, Rainer Kuchl, who welcomed him back to the stage when he accepted a personal ovation from the audience. It was a gesture that was not intended to go unnoticed, and it did not.

'You can tell when Kuchl doesn't take to a conductor,' said Ian Bousfield, the Yorkshireman who plays trombone in the VPO. 'His head goes down. But he took to Harding in a way I have never seen before, with any new conductor.'

Harding conducts the Vienna Philharmonic again at Easter, when another boon - he is granted the annual performance of the St Matthew Passion, and he will be in the pit for Don Giovanni at next year's Salzburg Festival. But that first bridge, when he stood before the orchestra for the first time, may be the most daunting he ever has to cross. Rattle, no shrinking violet, has admitted that he was never more nervous than at his first rehearsal in Vienna, and Harding was hardly more confident. …

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