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Review: Mahler returns to the L.A. Phil, Korngold in tow

Visiting conductor Daniel Harding leads Mahler's Fifth, the only of the composer's works in the new season. Renaud Capuçon solos in Korngold's Violin Concerto.

October 27, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • French violinist Renaud Capucon performs Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
French violinist Renaud Capucon performs Erich Wolfgang Korngold's… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

You can never have too much Mahler, most Mahler freaks believe. We trust our faith but seldom test it. The massive symphonies and disquieting song cycles are musically and emotionally bold statements that remain special-occasion music, even with the composer having entered the standard repertory.

A test did, however, occur at the beginning of this year with Gustavo Dudamel's Mahler Project, in which the conductor divided the nine numbered symphonies into cycles at Walt Disney Concert Hall and in Caracas performed by his two orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony. The performances were searing, daring and psyche-scarring. Many exhausted Mahlerians experienced their first burnout.

Consequently the L.A. Phil kept its summer Hollywood Bowl season unusually Mahler-free, and the orchestra is offering just a single Mahler symphony for the current Disney Hall season. That's the Fifth, and it was led Friday morning in Disney Hall by Daniel Harding (and repeating Saturday and Sunday).

There is nothing to fear. Harding's performance was centered and nearly unflappable. It's now safe to go back into this symphonic torrent. Maybe even a little too safe.

The British conductor's Mahler credentials are in order. He began his career by assisting such eminent Mahlerians as Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado. Although still in his 30s, Harding is conductor laureate for life of the — what else? — Mahler Chamber Orchestra (as well as juggling orchestral posts in Stockholm, London and Tokyo). His last appearance with the L.A. Phil was in 2004 when he conducted Mahler's unfinished Tenth.

And just to make sure there would be nothing to fear, Harding set the stage for the Mahler Fifth with Korngold's Violin Concerto. In this 1945 score by the Viennese composer who immigrated to Hollywood to help create the symphonic film scoring in the '30s, you can all but conjure up the lovely Olivia de Havilland or the swashbuckling Errol Flynn.

The soloist was Renaud Capuçon. In the program notes, musicologist Hugh Macdonald tells us that the recording of the concerto that Jascha Heifetz made with the L.A. Phil in 1953, with then music director Alfred Wallenstein, remains unsurpassed. Capuçon and Harding came as close to equaling it as I've heard.

Capuçon (who has, by the way, his own Mahler credentials, having once been concertmaster of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra) may not produce the Heifetz electricity. No one does. But he drained a sentimental score of excess.

The young French violinist has a lean but velvety tone and is admirably restrained with his use of vibrato. Where he is very reminiscent of Heifetz is in his way of making virtuosity look effortless. He phrases with a high degree of elegance.

Capuçon and Harding make a good match, as well. Harding brought out details in the orchestra, particularly in the winds, that further cut through Korngold fat. The two have just recorded the Brahms and Berg concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic, and they are superb.

Had they played the Berg concerto, instead of the Korngold, before Mahler's Fifth, the symphony might have sounded more daring on Friday. Berg saw where Mahler was going. Korngold remained where Mahler had been.

Little in this performance of the Fifth felt out of place. It is a symphony that the L.A. Phil has played often, although the Bolívars were assigned it for the Mahler Project. The burnished sound that Harding was after, however, was not one that would be immediately recognizable as L.A.

The symphony opens with a solo fanfare that terrifies first trumpets. The L.A. Phil's new principal Thomas Hooten nailed it and all else. His tone is bright and brilliant. He served almost as soloist in the first movement and proved a little too hard to miss elsewhere as he unfailingly cut through the dark tone that Harding went for in the blended strings and the restrained winds. In this context, Andrew Bain's rich and nuanced horn solos became a highlight.

The darkness and occasionally fleetingly fast tempos were the most intriguing aspects of Harding's essentially middle-of-the-road interpretation. They made the symphony seem as connected to Mahler's Slavic roots (he was born in what is now the Czech Republic) as to his Viennese stylistic association.

This was not the frantically death-haunted Mahler of the opening movements, not the love-besotted Mahler of the Adagietto and certainly not the manic-depressive Mahler of the exhilarating Finale. But the performance also had somewhat more character than a Mahler on meds, just not a Mahler out of control or inspired material for burnout.

mark.swed@latimes.com

Los Angeles Philharmonic with violinist Renaud Capucon and conductor Daniel Harding

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $23.75 to $189

Information: (323) 850-2000 or laphil.org

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