Mahler’s Ninth with Haitink and the Chicago Symphony

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony : Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Symphony Center, Chicago, 4.6.2011 (JLZ)

Mahler : Symphony no. 9

At the conclusion of his Spring 2011 residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Bernard Haitink conducted a single work, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 9. Often associated with biographical aspects of the composer’s life, the Ninth represents an innovative exploration of symphonic structure. In fact, the manipulation of structural elements allows form to become an expressive device, an aspect of style which Mahler addressed throughout his career.

Haitink’s respect for the score meant avoiding interpolating expressive elements of his own. This kind of faithfulness allowed the work to stand on its own merits, without histrionics that risk distracting listeners from the composer’s intentions, and as a result, the first movement was convincing for its consistency. In taking the work from the opening motivic ideas to the fully developed themes of the exposition, Haitink made the architecture of the form apparent, allowing all of Mahler’s ideas to emerge clearly. Within this conception, though, some of the individual parts did not always cohere, with the passages of repeated notes in the horns sometimes sounding mechanical or, where the first and second violins’ parts intersect, the two sections seeming at times going their separate ways. These details may have been resolved in other, later concerts.

The section marked “Schattenhaft” (“shadowy”) was atmospheric in its use of timbre to complement the structure, yet seemed a little loud. Yet the extroverted character of the march-like passage marked “Wie ein schwerer Kondukt” (“like a weightier cortege”) emerged echoing similar passages from Wagner’s Parsifal. On the whole, the first movement was remarkably sustained, with the Coda notable for Haitink’s allowing the thematic elements to disperse, almost parallel to the way in which they appeared at the opening.

With the second movement, the bassoon’s clearly stated theme helped Haitink create character from the start. While some conductors may adjust the tempos between the sections, the rhythmic continuity was laudable. At times timbres were sometimes unclear, with the passages for strings alone seeming subdued. Overall, though, the geniality was an effective contrast to the more serious first movement.

The third movement, which opens with the marking “sehr trotzig” (“very spiteful”) was effectively menacing, not solely based on tempo but from timbre and phrasing. Here the solo trumpet offered notable clarity and precision. At times the horns seemed unnecessarily loud, though: sometimes one inner part stood out from the rest in the tutti passages. And at times it seemed as if Haitink’s phrasing might have needed more articulation to create a more distinct shape, but his focus made the conclusion a powerful one.

In the Finale, Haitink allowed the emotion to arise from the score itself, rather than from anything additional from the podium. That outlook merits praise, since some conductors are tempted to confer unneeded sentiment to this finely crafted score. If the beginning tempo was a little faster than some, the result was still accurate, and the final bars retained a semblance of what Mahler suggested. The strings were consistently balanced, with the bass-motive nicely articulated whenever it occurred. Haitink’s masterful reading also clarified the thematic connections with the first movement.

The acclaim at the end was certainly warranted, but jubilant cries falling just seconds after such moving, elegiac music were somewhat out of place. This is not a fault of the conductor or the orchestra, and certainly it is good that the audience appreciated the Ninth’s power. Yet after an audience has been transported during one of Mahler’s most introspective movements, it was a bit jarring to hear shouts coming so quickly. Given Haitink’s patience in articulating the composer’s thoughts, one would think an audience would recognize the effort and reward the artists with just a little bit more silence, before then erupting with more vocal – and much deserved – praise.

James L. Zychowicz