Haitink’s Mastery in Mahler

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Mahler: Alina Ibragimova (violin), London Symphony Orchestra/ Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 14.6.2015. (JPr)

Mozart: Violin Concerto No 3 in G major K216
Mahler: Symphony No 1 in D major

Because he is 86 it is necessary to treasure every opportunity to see the legendary Bernard Haitink conduct, especially if it is Mahler and he has the LSO in front of him. Only after having whipped them along for a rousing climax to Mahler’s First Symphony did his age betray him and he obviously needed a few moments to recover from the exertion.

As one of the best Mahler conductors – if not the best of those still living – Haitink was as we all know ‘a man of the theatre’ like the composer himself.  Mahler was dead at 50 but he certainly spent more time in the theatre conducting than he did with his ‘second job’ writing songs and symphonies. It is also well known too how Mahler adjusted the soundworld of his (and other composers’) symphonies – and even the orchestration – depending on the venues he was performing in. For the Mahler symphony – and earlier in the concert when accompanying Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 3 – it was clear that Haitink, too, had given great thought to the preparation of the performance – and perhaps even changed his approach from previous times although he has used antiphonal violins before I believe.

The self-effacing Haitink ensues any trappings of the elder statesman on the podium and the sense of unity of purpose between conductor and orchestra is palpable. Haitink’s Mahler is never self-indulgent and just when ennui was setting in we were off once again on a Mahlerian ride that was akin to being on a rollercoaster in Vienna’s Prater and there were plenty of thrills, spills, excitement and, most importantly, intense drama throughout the one hour span of music.

In the first movement there was an incredible haunting spaciousness to the offstage trumpets. There was also a wonderful vibrancy to the ‘Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld’ melody, taken from the Wayfarer songs. The second movement moved as ‘strongly’ as Mahler requests and the Ländler was bold, foot-stamping and bucolic. An elegiac refrain from a solo double bass ushered in the slow, third movement which is a funeral march where the ‘hero’ of the symphony is conveyed to his grave accompanied by material from the well-known ‘Frère Jacques/Bruder Martin’ children’s song. Here the Klezmer band music was especially evocative in its Jewishness. Mahler’s oft-quoted reflection ‘I am three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, a Jew throughout the world’ was included in Stephen Johnson’s essay, ‘Mahler the Man’, in the programme; however, that the composer includes the traditional soundworld of Eastern European Jews in this symphony was totally ignored in his programme note.

Like all of the very greats Haitink coaxes refined, elegant, playing from the ‘engine’ of mighty orchestras such as the LSO; the strings, winds and brass. It was the latter section that excelled in the kaleidoscopic incandescence of that ebullient, climactic, fanfare at the end of the final movement. The maelstrom in the brass at the end of the work created a frisson in the audience that elicited a loud – and thoroughly deserved – ovation for all involved even before the last note had died away.

For the work that opened the programme – Mozart’s G major Violin Concerto K216 – Haitink led a much reduced LSO ensemble of only some 30 players and this must have been unusual for him. Their virtuosic playing ideally partnered Alina Ibragimova for her relaxed give-and-take in the slow second movement. She reserved any hint of her own virtuosity – Mozart wrote ‘I am no lover of difficulties’ – for the cadenzas, though since Mozart left none of his own I was not certain who was responsible for these. Having learnt the concerto at Haitink’s request, the tone of Ibragimova’s Anselmo Bellosio violin was mellow and pristinely beautiful throughout and she played with studied expressiveness, clarity and charm. As Lindsay Kemp’s programme note suggested here Mozart is ‘as we know him … elegant, witty, beguilingly changeable and, above all, capable of writing music of surpassing beauty’.

Jim Pritchard


For more news about forthcoming concerts and their 2015-16 season visit http://www.lso.co.uk/.

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