Haitink’s Mastery Undiminished

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mahler:  Tonhalle Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Tonhalle,  Zurich  (JR)

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

There was a palpable buzz in the Tonhalle’s foyers before this concert began. It was clear this was no routine concert; it was going to be an inevitable musical highlight. Haitink, incredibly 85 this year, lives on the shore of LakeLucerne and can be whisked to the Tonhalle in under half an hour; he must therefore find the purely physical aspect of conducting nowadays in Zurich relatively comfortable. Given the current superlative quality of the Tonhalle Orchestra’s playing, it is also undoubtedly also a pleasure. It was evident that the local audience and the orchestra hold him in high esteem and affection, revering him almost like an old friend. Haitink’s masterly Mahler was a glory in the 1960s when he first championed the composer and I am delighted to report that his Mahler continues to uphold the benchmark and impress, his strength virtually undiminished (he stood throughout to conduct, with score as is his wont, with only the briefest pauses sitting on a stool between movements). Haitink first conducted the Concertgebouw some 60 years ago (stepping in when Giulini fell ill); and it was 50 years ago that he first conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra (in Bruckner’s Third Symphony).

Before the concert began, the orchestra’s Intendant (General Manager) came on stage and in a lengthy and witty address urged the audience, at the express request of both orchestra and conductor, not to disrupt the performance by coughing – I immediately recalled Haitink, at the Festival Hall, many years ago in the last pianissimo bars of a Shostakovich Eighth, turning to the audience to confront one particular miscreant in the Stalls who was coughing indiscriminately, shaking his fist and holding up a large crumpled white handkerchief. As the Intendant told us, there are two types of coughers, the discreet and the indiscreet. As the performance was being recorded, he asked that neither class of cougher make their presence heard, even in the louder passages. Even the pauses between movements were not designed to allow a vehement clearing of the lungs. Well said, I thought, as the audience applauded – and it worked, miraculously, even in the final dying bars of the symphony. No one dared to cough: perhaps the address should be recorded and broadcast before every performance?

Mahler wrote this symphony, his last complete one, between 1908 and 1910. In 1907 his daughter Maria Anna had died of diphtheria (his Kindertotenlieder proving to be a cruel premonition); some days later Mahler learned of his own very serious heart condition. As Mengelberg wrote in his score, the symphony became Mahler’s valedictory farewell to his life, his family and his art.

So what makes Haitink’s Mahler so special?  The sensible speeds he adopts for each movement, and within each movement the individual sections, has remarkably hardly changed over the decades. As the years pass, he has not, like some conductors, slowed down his interpretation. As renowned musicologist and great Mahlerian Deryck Cooke once pointed out, this is simply “Mahler’s Mahler”, as the composer would probably have liked it, not Barbirolli’s Mahler, or Klemperer’s. Haitink’s Mahler just feels right. There is no showmanship, just masterly musicianship and Dutch humility. If there is any lack of passion, it is more than made up for by attention to detail. For additional heft, there is Haitink’s trademark raising his left hand, clenching it in a fist and slightly shaking it. He treats the gentle passages with loving tenderness, exceptionally delicate and sweet. The orchestra, buoyed by additional rehearsal time, was at the very top of their game: recording quality throughout. At the end of this third consecutive performance, they (and their conductor) were visibly, and rightly, proud of themselves.

Special mention must go, in the Ländler, to the principal bassoonist; he burbled and bobbed away putting a smile on everyone’s face. The symphony is so well balanced that almost every principal gets his or her turn at a solo display, right through to the viola.

The Rondo Burleske was properly rough, the parody was evident: Haitink just lets the music unfold, never a thought of an inappropriate gear change.

At the end of this monumental work, in the moving Adagio, after an fff final cry of anguish, Haitink reduced the volume to the quietest of pianissimi for the final bars of utter desolation, as Mahler wrote in the score “ppp mit inniger Empfindung”(ppp with heartfelt feeling”) – the audience appeared to have stopped breathing, let alone coughing. You could have heard a pin drop.

As Haitink slowly brought down his arms, the whole audience rose to its feet and the orchestra stamped their admiration for their conductor. Even though we are half way through January, this will certainly make my list of highlights for 2014.

John Rhodes