Haitink Finds the Vitality in Mahler’s Seventh

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Symphony Center (Chicago), 11.4.2013 (JLZ) 

Mahler: Symphony No. 7

While some might still hold that Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is the step-child among his symphonies, Bernard Haitink’s approach—with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last weekend—showed the work to be as strong and vital as any of the others. Some of the local advertising included the Seventh’s nickname, “The Song of the Night,” and made reference to Mahler’s often-quoted dictum that a symphony should reflect the world by containing many eclectic elements. But the reality was that the score needed no excuse to be heard: Haitink’s seamless interpretation demanded much from the orchestra’s players, and brought many rewards.

 The work requires off-stage performers, but Haitink did not call attention to the logistics of stage management. Rather, he retained the focus through his own keen attention—a master conductor leading an ensemble of outstanding musicians (including some fine soloists)—and he created a carefully rendered interpretation.

 At times some of the execution raised questions. On Saturday evening, for example, the beginning of the first movement was tenuous, with weak articulations from the tenor horn, though the performer recovered almost immediately and continued with aplomb. Similar hor problems occurred later, but Haitink led the ensemble out of any questionable passages, thanks to clearly articulated structure. If at time he was conservative with his tempi, the remarkable melodic and thematic clarity won the day, with equally clear sonorities. The quartal motifs, the augmented chords, and other harmonic effects were never ambiguous and always precise. Tempo was sometimes a problem, when sections were behind the beat.

 After such a solid and assertive conclusion to the first movement, the quiet opening of the second offered contrast. This time the solo horn passages were fine, but there were questionable pitches elsewhere. Even so, Haitink brought out the warm romantic scorings of the inner sections of the stylized march.

 However, Haitink’s interpretation in the Scherzo—similar to the second movement—also seemed unusual. The relatively loud dynamic at the beginning seemed at odds with the indication “Schattenhaft” (“shadowy”), and the rhythmic interplay was ragged. Perhaps the ensemble needed to settle into the piece, and when they did, the result was unquestionably effective.

 The fourth movement received a ravishing treatment, with details audible that are sometimes obscured, nuanced phrasing and voicing. The result made a case for this as one of the composer’s finest slow movements, with warm colors and details, redolent with romantic colors. The prominent positioning of the guitar and mandolin players at the edge of the stage allowed their parts to be heard clearly without overemphasis.

 While Haitink allowed a pause after the fourth movement, the assured and vibrant opening timpani gesture in the Rondo-Finale was as stunning as if it had been performed attacca. Mahler’s critics may have taken aim at this movement, but Haitink’s interpretation brought out all of its strengths. Each repetition of the theme increased in intensity, and Haitink created exceptional power. At the conclusion, the audience not only applauded the orchestra, but expressed stomping approval of Haitink during the extended bows and curtain calls.

 James L. Zychowicz

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