Dedicated to Victims of Terrorism: a Mahler 9 to Remember from Haitink and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 23.5.2017. (GD)

Mahler – Symphony No.9 in D major

For me Haitink gave a refreshingly direct and objective reading of Mahler’s last completed and finest symphony. I say ‘for me’ as I can imagine Mahlerians, nurtured on the likes of Bernstein and Tennstedt, complaining that Haitink’s reading lacked idiomatic conviction, or passion, or words to that effect. But I, as a non-Mahlerian, would argue that the rhetorical, ‘imaginative’ drama of Mahler is there, in the score. The conductor’s job is to present the score (as performance) as accurately, and honestly as possible; and this, as far as I could discern, is exactly what Haitink achieved tonight, apart from a few quite marginal (to the overall interpretation) reservations.

Haitink started the huge opening Andante with the great advantage of having the absolute musical perception to gauge the two opening falling seconds on violins (actually setting the movement’s whole pulse) to perfection. The great German philosopher, composer and music theorist Theodor W Adorno, was generally critical of Mahler’s ‘naïve’ and sentimental tendencies,’ but he had a great admiration for this movement, seeing it as an ‘alternating dialogue (or dialectic) between two major and minor musical projections’. And although Haitink’s reading certainly lacked the monumental, epic quality of a Klemperer, or the diatonic thrust of a Rosbaud, it revealed admirable qualities of its own; not least an overall clear rhythmic/harmonic articulation which allowed the listener to hear clearly the unfolding contours of this huge piece of musical architecture. Haitink’s conducting gestures throughout, were minimal but entirely congruent with the letter of the score, which he wisely used…one was never overtly conscious of the conductor’s ego, or ‘interpretation’ being transplanted on to the music; the music spoke for itself. The already mentioned falling seconds (with their motivic link to the ‘farewell figure from Beethoven’s Les Adieux piano sonata) develop, in the extended exposition, into a massive climax which transforms into a diminuendo D minor rhythm on muted horns, over which the first timpani intone a funereal sounding four-note figure marked piano and morendo (dying), here Haitink never imposed any unwritten accents, or dynamics, the music seemed to simply play itself.  The whole movement was delivered with tremendous conviction, particularly the long lead-up to the central climax, with the already noted timpani figure with trombone intonations now clearly marked double-forte, accurately observed; even the slight diminuendo on the last trombone note and pizzicato double-bass and celli echoing the timpani figure, usually ignored, made its exact effect.  The recapitulation re-statement of the funeral cortege, now in fragmented form, was done with extreme sensitivity, with especially ominous muted horns and trombones. The brief chamber-like cadenza led by solo horn with woodwind and double-bass recitative accompaniment was well executed, although it could have been played a little more sotto voce.

Mahler marked the second movement ‘Ländler’, waltz parody ‘rather clumsy and somewhat boorish’; and for the most part Haitink achieved this effect with some particularly quirky phrasing from horns and woodwind. The main C major Ländler theme, with its break-up of the opening banal dance tune, was only let down, in parts, by some rather messy cross-rhythms in the lower strings. The two contrasting trio sections were delivered in a straightforward way, with no lingering of the kind found in more indulgent readings. Although Mahler leaves open a certain interpretive latitude it is up to the conductor to ensure that any kind of improvisation does not depart from the overall structure of the movement…this Haitink achieved admirably. The third movement Rondo-Burleske in A minor is marked ‘very fast’ and ‘defiant’ or ‘angry’ in some editions. I have only heard this conveyed literally in two recordings from the past: the famous Bruno Walter 1938, Vienna recording, and a South German Radio recording from the fifties under Rosbaud. Klemperer, in his recording, certainly sounds ‘defiant’, but it is hardly ‘fast’! Although Haitink again gave an admirably straightforward and accurate reading I did miss that urgent thrusting, defiant quality Mahler asks for. After the contrapuntal pandemonium of the main Rondo variations the reflective D major interlude, which of course anticipates the main theme of the concluding Adagio, was a little blandly played, and the furious rush of the coda was a little under-powered.

Although Mahler marks the final Adagio ‘very slow’, it is clear from the harmonic/tonal structure of the movement that he did not want the music to drag. As in the first movement Haitink maintained an impressive Adagio tension throughout, so that the music never sounded sluggish or cloying as it does so frequently. The haunting C sharp minor diatonic sequence for bassoon and muted strings in the upper and lower registers sounded more effective for being played in tempo. The projection of climaxes, beginning in D flat Major, where all coherently structured within the frame-work of the whole movement (even the whole symphony with its main tonic in D major). The last blazing climax (re-stating the theme first initiated in the Rondo-Burleske) was all the more powerful in its accumulative release. Never sounding ‘tacked on’, but emerging inevitably from the inner structure of the movement. The long valedictory fade-out on ever more pianissimo strings was, for once, beautiful and flowing without ever sounding over-sentimental. I only wish the LSO strings could have maintained a more sustained, ‘held’ pianissimo at the very end of the symphony… they did play very well but that extra pianissimo can sound so compelling, and haunting, as Abbado has demonstrated in his Berlin Philharmonic performances.

Haitink wisely deployed antiphonal violins, which Mahler expected, bringing that extra note of contrapuntal clarity, especially in the third movement Rondo-Burleske. Haitink, now 88, confines himself to conducting Bruckner or Mahler symphonies, with a handful of masterpieces from the great Austro-German tradition. From a conductor of such qualities it would be fascinating to hear him in less familiar repertory, say some Max Reger or Krenek. But with such memorable Mahler, as heard tonight, he surely compensates for any lack of repertory limitation: after all, he conducted many modern works when he led the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Certainly a Mahler 9 to remember.

The concert was dedicated to the victims of the terrorist atrocity in Manchester the previous day.

Geoff Diggines

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