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S & H Concert Review

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.9 in D major, Wiener Philharmoniker, Bernard Haitink, Barbican, 28th April 2004 (MB)


This might not have been the greatest Mahler Ninth I have heard in the concert hall (that is still an unsurpassable performance Karajan gave in the early 1980s in Salzburg) but it was still a formidable achievement, if not an absolute one. If neither the humbling experience one hears with latter-day Abbado, where every performance might seem to be the conductor’s last, nor as wrenching in its power as Bernstein could be with the work, Haitink’s view seems driven by a willingness to eschew emotional extremes, sometimes limpidly dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ at the expense of convincing rubato. Tempi have changed – and not always for the better – but a stopwatch is no measure of what Haitink achieves; at slightly over 24 minutes, the symphony’s adagio seems longer than it is but it is breathtakingly balanced; at 17 minutes, the scherzo is interminable. In one sense, this is a performance where time can both stand still and pass with unnoticeable speed.

What is almost certainly the case is that if Haitink had given this performance with any orchestra other than the Wiener Philharmoniker questions of interpretation would have been more clear-cut. That this performance was so impressive is almost entirely down to the orchestra. The playing was simply superlative but on a level that transcends technique (often not always as perfect as it might have been here). An evenness of tone – especially from the strings – was spread throughout the work reaching its apex in a performance of the great Adagio that was just sumptuous; often, and even with an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic who brought the work to London some years ago, imbalances in string tone can be a problem. Such blended tone in the Vienna strings reached a synthesis of perfection just before the final movement’s Tempo 1 molto adagio marking (bar 122-127) where the unison in the bowing, the sf markings and the restraint Mahler asks for were as ideal as I have ever heard live (with the New York Philharmonic this moment was calamitous).

But the greatness of the Vienna orchestra lay in little touches spread throughout the work’s epic structure. The first movement might not be a vocal piece – even though the Ninth is preceded by two Mahler works where song is quintessentially the dominant force – but listening to this performance one was aware of how skilfully Mahler uses orchestral duets and terzets to convey that sense of the voice from within the orchestra. At the Plötzlich sehr mäßig marking (Fig.7), for example, sf horns, ppp basses and ‘cellos (underpinned by the harp) were remarkably melodic in their phrasing. If this movement produced playing of uncommon feeling, however, it proved short lived in their performance of the Scherzo. There might have been an authentic Viennese sense of counterpoint to the second dance – a Rondo waltz – but at times it seemed they were dancing it with twenty-holed boots on so weighty was the playing (and to be frank this most aristocratic of orchestras doesn’t do peasantry especially well). In part, one could argue that the pedantry was merely there to preface the Burlesque but in essence this movement was neither boisterous enough nor sufficiently subtle and Haitink’s very pedestrianism made it hang fire.

The Rondo-Burlesque, in contrast, was the very model of defiance, a fugato that embellished itself with latent, Apollonian fury. Contrary to some reports, the playing of the orchestra was incandescently vivid with superlatively toned horns and trombones filtering a sense of impending catastrophe into their playing; indeed, where normally the Adagio-Finale is suggested by the second episode of the third movement Haitink instead made the coda the vortex around which the symphony’s final resignation rested. Slower – more obstinate – than usual its fury seemed unquestionably life affirming. And indeed, this was exactly appropriate for Haitink’s masterly conception of the Finale itself, a performance perhaps more dynamically unrestrained than usual but less death-haunted because of that. The sumptuousness of the strings throughout the movement – especially the magnificent, Dantean double basses – proved almost overwhelming, but in the symphony’s closing pages they were more spectral and softer than is normally the case, with pppp markings audible only amongst the stillness.

If one always yearned for less ambivalent cymbals (rarely did these ever sound as Mahler scored them) they were the only drawback in a performance that showed this orchestra in its finest light, even if not glowing as it always might in the Barbican’s still troublesome acoustic. Haitink himself might not be the most illuminating Mahlerian but this performance had a will to live too rarely encountered in the concert hall. On its own terms, however, it was probably as ideal as you will hear in the concert hall today.

Marc Bridle

Further Listening

Mahler, Symphony No.9

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, EMI CMS5670362

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, DG E4192082

Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra, Takashi Asahina, Tiger (NLA)

Live recordings which may be found through collectors:

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (Live at the Proms)

NDR Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (live in Hamburg)


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