Bernard Haitink’s Serene Mahler with the LSO at the Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Mahler: Murray Perahia (piano), Anna Lucia Richter (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 20.9.2015. (JPr)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 in G major Op.58

Mahler – Symphony No.4

Willem Mengelberg was an illustrious predecessor of Bernard Haitink at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Haitink’s acclaimed Mahler during his 27 years in charge there was almost in a direct line through Mengelberg and their other legendary chief or ‘first’ conductors, such as Karl Muck and Bruno Walter, to the composer himself. With this ‘tradition’ behind him I suspect Haitink has sought with all his Mahler to pay attention to what the composer intended or would have heard performed himself. However, Mahler conducted his compositions faster one day and slower the next, and often changed the orchestration and dynamics depending on what hall he performed in, so we can never be entirely sure what he really intended.

All Mahler’s ten symphonies plus his ‘song symphony’ Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’) are somehow connected since they form a continuous unravelling and development of the composer’s unique artistic vision. The Second and Fourth particularly are the ‘Wunderhorn’ ones and in those Mahler borrows his earlier settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘Youth’s Magic Horn’), early nineteenth-century German folk poetry that had been collected and published by von Arnim and Brentano. The entire symphony is built around a song from this collection, ‘Das himmlische Leben’, about such down-to-earth glories as feasting and singing in heaven. At one point, Mahler considered calling it a ‘Humoresque’ (thus inviting comparison with Dante’s The Divine Comedy) in the somewhat sardonic sense that life is a constant embarrassment of vanity and self-deceit, relieved on occasion by nobility and simple goodness.

The original title of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (‘The Heavenly Life’) was ‘Many Fiddles Hang in Heaven’. It was composed in 1892 and was originally penned-in as the finale of the titanic Third Symphony. At some point Mahler decided this would be an anti-climax to an already huge piece and decided to compose an entirely new work (1899-1900, later revised) with this song as its final movement. This new symphony was to be more optimistic and cheerful and although plenty of childlike innocence can be heard, it would not be Mahler without hints of a parallel nightmare world intruding, often almost subliminally, from time to time. Mahler planned this fourth movement for boy soprano and marks the score ‘singer’ without further instructions apart from saying that the voice must have ‘a happy childlike manner: absolutely without parody!’ Over the years, listeners have been delighted by the jingle of sleigh bells with which the first movement opens, a feature which returns in the song. The young German soprano Anna Lucia Richter was the undoubted success of this performance and matched Mahler’s requirements perfectly as well as having the volume to dominate the orchestra. I haven’t heard Mahler’s Fourth Symphony for some time but I cannot recall the finale having been sung better and her radiance must have been exactly what Mahler envisioned.

Why many of us come back to Mahler time and again is because no two performances are the same. Throughout, Haitink brought an overwhelming sense of serenity to the music and where others might find more anxiety and tension, everything was tranquil and nostalgic. Haitink has seemingly mastered the Barbican’s tricky acoustics in a way no other conductor has in my experience and there were also some delightful balances particularly in delicately refined moments of the second movement trios and the elegiac slow movement. The wonderful London Symphony Orchestra responded with a playfulness in this symphony which would not have been out of place in Mozart as Mahler’s themes ebbed and flowed from section to section and soloist to soloist.

I had been fascinated at the interval watching the platform being readied for this symphony and at one point an assiduous percussionist came on to test-jingle his ‘sleigh bells’. I can’t believe I am writing this but actually for me they were the biggest disappointment in this Mahler Fourth. The bells were more perfunctory than they might have been given that a tinkling naïveté is necessary to launch a symphony which Stephen Johnson in his programme note rightly described as a ‘blissful dream touched by images of nightmare.’ The gossamer-light playing of the strings soon banished some initial doubts in the first movement and established a depth of feeling that pervaded the next hour or so of the music. It is important to note how for the opening of the Fourth Symphony and for the following Scherzo (in the style of a Ländler) Mahler qualifies the tempo markings with the words (in German) ‘not hurried … very leisurely’ and ‘without haste’ and Haitink does take this quite literally. Even with Roman Simovic’s re-tuned violin intruding menacingly into the rich musical textures, Haitink does not suggest that death here is anything to be particularly frightened of.

Before the radiantly sung apotheosis was a ravishingly beautiful and extremely poignant slow movement. It is marked Ruhevoll (Restful) and Haitink’s gently flowing tempo and sustained line produced outstanding results from the LSO, now playing at their very finest, most luminous, and transcendent. It all led with great inevitability to the opening of the finale which was akin to clouds parting and sunlight dispelling any hints of darkness: ‘Das Himmlische Leben’ then made heaven seem somewhere we’d all like to go to (if not too soon!) – all lavish meals and eleven thousand dancing virgins. This wouldn’t be Mahler if there weren’t undercurrents here and the singer sings about ‘the butcher Herod’ and how ‘St Luke slaughters oxen’. The Qur’an of course ‘rewards’ male Muslim martyrs with 72 virgins when they get to their version of paradise and Mahler ‘speaking’ to us from the first decade of the twentieth century seems to know something about the twenty-first! Of course, Haitink is not the conductor to explore this and so for all the greatness of the performance he does not allow any uneasiness to intrude into this heavenly vision when perhaps it might.

Before the interval we heard Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto that was begun in 1804 and was finished two years later. It was premièred on 22 December 1808 in a marathon four-hour-long concert at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien alongside other first public performances that included his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, two movements from the Mass in C, a concert aria ‘Ah, perfido’, a solo piano improvisation and the Choral Fantasy. The piano soloist was Beethoven himself and it was all under-rehearsed and not a great success for the composer. The Fourth Concerto is an odd one and begins with the piano alone, the second movement is just a dialogue between piano and strings and it is only in the concerto’s finale that the drums and trumpets – which have been silent during all of the second movement and most of the first one – are let off the leash. Sensitively accompanied by Haitink and the LSO, Murray Perahia was the unassuming soloist and his rendition was quite affecting as it travelled in a smooth – possibly too smooth – dramatic arc from some first quite hesitant chords through a vulnerable and reflective slow movement to its boisterously triumphant finale. My overall impression was that this was a magisterial performance without being a revelatory one.

Jim Pritchard

Leave a Comment