Haitink and Mahler’s 4th: a Masterly and Angelic Performance

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Haydn, Mahler: Tonhalle Orchestra, Bernard Haitink(conductor), Klara Ek (soprano), Tonhalle, Zurich, 23.3.2012 (JR)

Haydn: Symphony No. 104
Mahler: Symphony No. 4


Photo of Klara Ek, copyright: Sussie Ahlburg.

The programme note tried hard to portray a link between Haydn’s Symphony 104 and Mahler’s 4th. I would have said, somewhat sceptically, that the pieces are a good match in length, not too strenuous a programme for a venerable conductor getting on in years, a likely sell-out (the orchestra failed, sadly, on this) and reflect contrasting styles and periods. I fail to see too much of a musical match, but the Intendant argued that the Mahler was a Humoresque, sandwiched between his first three symphonies and those in his middle period. True, the 4th can be seen as something of a breathing space, a work of lesser dimensions, particularly after a giant Third symphony with chorus and soloists. There are in the Mahler elements of the grotesque, from the opening sleigh-bells to the mischievously mistuned violin in the second movement. This is Mahler at his most playful and one could say the same for Haydn in his last symphony, although humour was one of his most general traits. Bernard Haitink did not particularly seek to bring out the humour of the Haydn, but, as is his wont, he played the music straight, adhering strictly to score for tempi and dynamics, just letting the music flow. Boring some might say, masterful say others.

I myself was taken by Haitink’s straightforward and lucid reading of the Haydn and had a smile on my face for most of the work. The opening movement was joyful and effervescent; Haitink made the second movement sound almost modern with its sudden loud outbursts and Brucknerian full stops. The Minuet swung with a delightful lilt, the Finale spirituoso was suitably rustic and rumbustious, the buoyancy both tangible and infectious.

The highlight of the concert was, however, the Mahler, where Haitink has, for many decades, been more than just a safe pair of hands. This was a truly wonderful performance throughout, even without exaggerated emotions, commencing with the magically wondrous sounds of the first movement, with its brief but thrilling and earth-shattering climax (despite the work’s absence of trombones and tuba). The orchestra’s Leader Andreas Janke played the mistuned Devil’s fiddle of the second movement with technical virtuosity, aplomb and abandon; Haitink negotiated the continual tempi gear-changes with mastery and an innate knowledge of the work and Mahler’s oeuvre. The moving Adagio, in my view, surpasses the beauty of the famous Allegretto of the Fifth symphony and was most impressively and touchingly played. And to finish, bright-voiced Swedish soprano Klara Ek kept the audience riveted with a nigh-on perfect rendition of “Das Himmlische Leben”, Haitink accompanying with a heavenly lightness of touch.

“Wir führen ein englisches Leben” sings the soloist, not a reference to tea taken with milk but a life of the angels – and this was a truly angelic performance.

The orchestra applauded Haitink loudly at the end (this was the last of a series of three identical concerts), hoping that Haitink’s health will allow him to conduct them on many more memorable occasions. Haitink was visibly impressed with the playing of the Tonhalle: plaudits, in particular, went to Ivo Gass (Principal Horn), Andreas Janke of course for his lengthy solo, and the A-team woodwind, Sabine Moyé-Porel (flute), Simon Fuchs (oboe) and Michael Reid (clarinet).

John Rhodes