PROM 40: Distinguished Schubert and Mahler from Bernard Haitink and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 40: Schubert and Mahler: Camilla Tilling (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 16.8.2014. (JPr)

Bernard Haitink and LSO (c) Mark Allan

Schubert -Symphony No.5 in B flat major
Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G major

Even if he wasn’t named above there would be only one conductor who particularly comes to mind for an evening of Schubert and Mahler with the London Symphony Orchestra and that is, of course, Bernard Haitink. It is widely appreciated that works by Mahler and Schubert can complement each other and the legendary 85-year-old maestro – quite rightly named in the printed programme as ‘our greatest living Mahlerian’ – has a predilection for this common and quite natural pairing … especially with the LSO.

The two Austrian composers were ‘song and dance’ men who both shared an interest in, among other things, setting poetry to music and in Ländler and other folk dances. In their all-too-short lives they ruminated increasingly on the darker side of the human psyche but mostly they are celebrated for their wonderful talent for melodic invention. As a piece of classical music Schubert’s Fifth Symphony is one of the ‘Smooth Classics’; yet as the late John Reed’s programme note reminded us: ‘The symphony achieves a Classical consistency of style and formal perfection. It is the spirit of Mozart that broods over it, though the style and orchestration are unmistakeably Schubert’s.’

A poor performance can make this essentially chamber symphony sound trivial despite its innate charm but Bernard Haitink’s Schubert was an exquisite balance of classical discipline and romantic lyricism. Tempi were surprisingly brisk yet the music never seemed overly-hurried along and the wit, power to move, and sense of unfolding song were all present. Schubert’s Fifth – whilst clearly in the Classical style (alluded to in John Reed’s comment) – contains elements, particularly in the Andante con moto and Menuet, that look forward to the more overtly Romantic Schubert of his Eighth or Ninth symphonies and his successors such as Mahler. Mr Haitink’s wonderfully heart-warming interpretation honoured both worlds.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is the watershed between those symphonies that drew their inspiration from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the often brooding and tempestuous works with which his life and career ended. According to many commentators, including Henry-Louis de La Grange, the Fourth’s simplicity is deliberate.  Mahler uses a standard symphonic technique yet transforms and enriches it through his febrile imagination. We can discover in this music seventeen-century polyphony, the musical structure and delicate scoring of the eighteenth-century, the development of the use of Leitmotifs from the nineteenth century and even a prescient glance forward to the intensification of music by the composers of the twentieth-century’s ‘new Viennese school’.

Mahler’s original intention for his Fourth was as a six-movement ‘humoresque’ where instrumental sections and vocal ones would alternate. What he left us, he considered, takes us from earth to heaven; though Mahler considered the atmosphere of the symphony to be like the sky where the blue that is ever-present can cloud over or darken yet later reappear seemingly renewed and fresh. His first movement with the wonderful slow jog-trotting sleigh bells has a traditionally formal structure (a sonata) grounded in Mozart and Bach whilst Mahler rearranges its components in patterns of increasing complexity. His second movement, a sinister scherzo that is relieved by two trios, is a dance of death, harking back to the baroque scordatura, where a solo violin is played tuned a whole tone higher than normal (A-E-B-F#) and thus produces a thin, spectral sound: further to this, Mahler’s instruction wants it to sound ‘like a medieval fiddle’. The third slow movement, contains an set of variations built upon two contrasting but related themes, and here Mahler considered this either to reflect his mother’s sad face –  always loving in spite of almost constant suffering –  or as ‘a vision of a tombstone on which was carved an image of the departed, with folded arms, in eternal sleep’.

The work’s only radical change from the ‘standard’ symphonic form is left to the finale although everything has been signalling the way the music would go through the development of earlier themes. Here we have a song written in 1892 which was originally conceived to be the seventh movement of the Third Symphony:  wiser thoughts prevailed on Mahler however and he cut it out. Sleigh bells return and the soprano sings ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (‘The Heavenly Life’). This is marked ‘To be sung in a happy child-like manner: absolutely without parody!’ Here we have a traditional rondo but no rousing conclusion as we have instead, this naïve rumination on the ‘joys’ of heaven including the activities of ‘the butcher Herod.’ As the child falls silent the music fades and all we hear is the tolling of the harp. Mahler is saying to us: ‘If you need to ask what all this means, only a child – or perhaps those who have a child’s sense of wonder – can tell you the answer.’

A big question about the Fourth is how did Mahler hear it himself and want it performed?  Sadly, we have no recordings to resolve the question but we do have the piano rolls from 1905 which include the final movement of this symphony. Despite his instruction above and a further one saying ‘It is of the greatest importance that the singer be extremely discreetly accompanied’ his playing, even allowing for the fact that he may not have been a great pianist, is a trifle eccentric. He ignores many of his own markings in the score so that it all seems like a free interpretation, it is full of strange rubato and the vocal line is exposed and unsupported. He therefore seems to violate all the instructions for interpretation he imposes for others … curious.

Under Bernard Haitink’s baton this Mahler Four – his first at the Proms – brought an almost quintessentially English (Elgarian?) meditativeness to a relatively light sounding work with a mostly sunny disposition. Haitink’s interpretation had a subtle elasticity that stopped short of the quixotic distortions that others can bring to this symphony and – as befits an octogenarian conductor who, thankfully, looks to be in good health – it was all mostly pastoral and very mellow though building up a suitably stately head of steam in the finale.

Ensemble playing was quite exceptional – as is to be expected with the LSO –and there were excellent contributions from the leader, Tomo Keller and oboists, John Roberts and Katie Bennington. It was a very memorable evening until the soprano Camilla Tilling started singing and the realisation dawned on me that the Royal Albert Hall is probably too big for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony despite how frequently it is performed at the Proms. Whether it was where I was sitting I cannot say but Ms Tilling’s words were indistinct and she began by using a much too conversational approach and as a result, for me, she was not loud enough. Of course this did not matter at all for the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 but I wonder just how far her voice travelled in the vast auditorium since I was near the front and had trouble hearing her. Bernard Haitink created an almost trance-like, reflective state to the final section and there was perfect quiet at the end that was witness alone to the power of the performance. Eventually this remarkable conductor lowered his hands and there was deservedly warm applause for all concerned and particularly the LSO’s players who rarely disappoint or make an ugly sound.

Jim Pritchard

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