Intriguing Affinities: Haitink Conducts Schubert and Mahler in Chicago

United StatesUnited States Schubert, MahlerKlara Ek (soprano) , Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 22.10.2011 (JLZ)

Schubert: Symphony no. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485
Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

Violinist Franz Peter Zimmermann withdrew from this week’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program because of illness, so Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto was replaced by Schubert’s Symphony No. 5. Although the original pairing of Berg and Mahler was intriguing for the connections that exist between the two composers, conductor Bernard Haitink made a wise choice in offering the Schubert.

At the core of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is the song “Das himmlische Leben,” a setting of the text “Der Himmel hängt voller Geigen” [an idiomatic expression often rendered as “Through rose-colored glasses,” with the literal meaning “Heaven is full of fiddles”] from the early nineteenth-century collection of German folk poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. That text offers a vision of the afterlife through the perception of a child. With Mahler’s Fourth being a symphony of “normal dimensions,” as the composer once described it, conductors inevitably face various choices for filling out the evening. (When the work was still new, Mahler solved the dilemma by programming the Fourth twice in the same concert.)

That stated, the decision to open the program with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony was a good one, and the CSO gave a laudable reading. The first movement was a bit brisk, but the playing was deft with clear phrasing. With the second movement, though, the expected contrast was not evident in the tempos, and the result was well-played, but somewhat mechanical-sounding. The CSO’s woodwinds were notably prominent here, but the pace prevented the their full lyric expression. In the minuet, Schubert returned to an older style, and Haitink accentuated the contrasting middle section, and the Finale’s divergent episodes had distinct characters.

After an intermission that was nearly as long as the Schubert, the Mahler was given an effective performance in many regards, with exemplary leadership from Haitink. Some details stood out: in the Coda, which begins marked “Sehr zurückhaltend” (“Very restrained”), each of the opening three pitches seemed to have a fermata, not just the third one, as indicated in the score. Nevertheless, the movement came to a satisfying conclusion, with Mahler’s rhythmic play emerging dynamically. The rich string sounds found in the Coda were not always easy to hear, because of the overly prominent brass – perhaps a result of their placement onstage.

The second movement has moments of chamber-music-like timbres, helped by the tight ensemble. Concertmaster Robert Chen gave a fine reading of the solo violin part, with the scordatura tuning giving his role the prominence Mahler intended. At times it was difficult to hear the portamento, possibly resulting from Haitink’s tempos, although the contrasts between thematic content and tempo were clear. The blends between flute and oboe – as well as between flute and violins – was nicely resonant, particularly in the final section.

Similarly, in the third movement contrasts are important to the double variations, but some of the textures were oddly voiced, which may be the result of the hall; at times the bass line seemed emphasized at the expense of the melodic line above it. The modulations were nicely handled, with keen attention to pitch, and CSO winds were fine in their many prominent passages. Despite some blurred textures, the gesture that opens the coda was nicely articulated, both concluding the slow movement and serving as a prelude to the song-Finale.

It was a pleasure to hear “Das himmlische Leben” sung by the young soprano Klara Ek. Singing from memory, she captured the spirit with both her vocal color and approach, presenting the sometimes declamatory setting with exceptional clarity. More than that, Ek sang the melismatic passages effortlessly. Punctuated by extroverted interludes from the orchestra, the vocal part is symphony’s core, and Haitink gave it the weight it required.

It is unfortunate that the program notes perpetuated some stereotypes about the Fourth. Instead, it would be useful to assist the audience with comments on that final song, to help them appreciate the ways in which Mahler unified the score. Such details might have defused the audience’s palpable impatience, which started to applaud (with requisite “bravos!”) before Haitink put down his baton, although their enthusiasm is certainly admirable. Ultimately the pairing of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony with Mahler’s Fourth offered affinities worth exploring.

James L. Zychowicz