Haitink Remains Magisterial in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Mahler:  Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Tonhalle,  Zurich    21.5.15 (JR)Mahler: Symphony No. 7

“Sold out!” proclaimed the computer screens above the Box Office. This came as absolutely no surprise – two performances of a colossal Mahler symphony conducted by the great Mahlerian giant Bernard Haitink are a rare and significant musical event in any orchestra’s calendar, especially given Haitink’s now remarkable age (86). The Tonhalle stage had been extended forwards, sacrificing a number of rows of Stalls seats, to accommodate the vast forces required including four flutes, three oboes, four clarinets, three bassoons, two harps, guitar, mandolin, bells, tubular bells and gongs.

Haitink lives some 40 minutes from Zurich, overlooking Lake Lucerne, and is a regular and highly-prized visitor at the Tonhalle. This season, as he did in Chicago a few months ago, he turned his attention to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, sometimes nicknamed “The Song of the Night” – although Mahler disapproved of this nickname. Mahler did though refer, in a letter to a critic, to the central movements being “three night pieces” and the finale as a “bright day”. The Seventh is Mahler’s least popular symphony judging by the number of performances it receives: from the outset it was considered a problematic piece. It has to be said that it is an odd mishmash of a work, without any programme or text as Mahler in provides in some of his other symphonies.

The orchestra pulled out all the stops for the occasion. Haitink’s secure mastery of the score (which he still, despite all his many decades of experience with this composer, followed assiduously) ensured a thorough, intelligent reading without any histrionics. Haitink was never a demonstrative conductor and he is now well past even thinking of jumping in Andris Nelsons style or kneeling, as I witnessed in a Mahler’s First Symphony in Tilson Thomas’ younger days. Haitink’s clenched and slightly shaking left fist to denote “keep applying power” is his sole trade mark gesture, otherwise it is a quick look at the score and an ever dependable glance at the next section of the orchestra to ensure clean and strong entries.

My fifteen-year old daughter’s school class was invited to the final rehearsal and found the conductor dull – she reported he said little and hardly waved his arms about. She was also mystified by the music. I suspect this was a poor choice by her music teacher – this was neither the work nor the conductor to warm teenagers to classical music. The Tonhalle audience on the nights of the performances were, however, thrilled.

The long opening movement has been referred to by Haitink as a “kaleidoscope” presumably to indicate its many tiny colourful bits. It certainly has interesting fragments, but no memorable tunes; it does contain some wonderful, even spiritual moments looking ahead to his Eighth – Haitink ensured we heard every texture, every detail. It was still a bitty sprawl.

The three central “night” movements continue the puzzle. Are they depressively dark?  The three years which elapsed between the completion of the score and the symphony’s premiere witnessed dramatic changes in Mahler’s life. He had resigned his conductorship of the Opera in Vienna as the musical community in Vienna turned against him and then his first daughter died of scarlet fever; to top it all Mahler then learned that he was suffering from an incurable heart condition. Any vestiges of optimism in the symphony were subsequently lessened by a number of revisions which Mahler made in the years before the work’s première.

The first Night Music movement brought in offstage jangling cowbells, first heard in Mahler’s Sixth symphony: in the expert hands of Swiss percussionists, these sounded wholly authentic and audible, one could almost see the cows – often not the case elsewhere. The movement has many fascinating and beguiling cameos, in particular for cello (played spectacularly by principal Rafael Rosenfeld), trumpet (Philippe Litzler) and clarinet (Andrew Reid). The central inner movement introduces the grotesque spookiness which Haitink rather played down – a Boulez or Tennstedt would have stressed the neurotic elements to a greater degree. Perhaps the best movement was the fourth, the final night music movement, introducing guitar and twangy mandolin, and more moments of wistful nostalgia and wondrous beauty.

For those in the audience yearning for Mahler’s brass outbursts and timpani attacks, the thrilling Finale provides this amply so that by the time the massive symphony ends, one has forgotten what an undisciplined meander this work is and Haitink was cheered to the rafters. Deservedly so: a full five stars for conductor and orchestra even though fewer for the work itself.

Next season, in January, Haitink returns to Zurich to conduct Beethoven’s “Eroica” and Brahms “German Requiem”.


John Rhodes

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