Haitink Coaxes Folkish Dvořák and Serene Mahler from the LSO at the Barbican

17/03/2019

Dvořák and Mahler: Isabelle Faust (violin), Sally Matthews (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 14.3.2019. (JPr)

Bernard Haitink (c) Mark Allan

Dvorák – Violin Concerto

Mahler – Symphony No.4 in G major

This was a further valedictory concert for Bernard Haitink as he heads towards a well-earned ‘sabbatical’ from conducting chores. Not that wielding the baton is a problem even at 90: on the podium the years seem to melt away and the issue seems that otherwise he is more fragile and less agile than in recent years. Nevertheless this will be an evening that will live long in the memory of those fortunate to have been present, in the event – after the repeat of this concert on 21 March – that we never get to see Haitink conduct in London again.

Dvořák met the great violinist Joseph Joachim and subsequently wrote a concerto – not necessarily his forte – with him in mind. Having sent Joachim the manuscript, he suggested improvements, and by 9 May 1880, Dvořák told his publisher, Simrock, that he had revised the entire concerto accordingly, ‘without missing a single measure’. Joachim then made further changes to the solo violin part commenting: ‘Although the work proves that you know the violin well, certain details make it clear that you have not played it yourself for some time’. A run-through was arranged for November 1882 in Berlin, yet Joachim could not be convinced of the concerto’s worth: ‘I may — without the danger of being misunderstood — confess that I still do not think the Violin Concerto in its present shape to be ripe for the public, especially because of its orchestral accompaniment, which is still rather heavy’. Joachim never did play it in public and the premiere was finally given in Prague by František Ondříček on 14 October 1883.

My knowledge of violin works is not great, and I hope I am not damning Dvorák’s concerto with faint praise if I write how pleasant its 30-plus minute span was. It is clearly a virtuoso piece and Isabelle Faust certainly has the technique necessary to make light of its demands. As appropriate she brought to her performance emphatic bite, flourish and passion. After a melodically muscular opening Allegro, the lyrical central Adagio ma non troppo was by turns rhapsodic and melancholy and there was some delightful give and take between Faust and the orchestra. But it is the Finale – with its folkish rhythms and fierier technical feats – that is the really memorable movement. Taking its inspiration from the Furiant – a native Czech dance – Faust’s soft-grained sound and rather breathy phrasing gave it – especially when the melody lay on the lowest strings – something of a vocal quality.

The London Symphony Orchestra sounded in remarkably fine shape. As subsequently in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, they truly breathed together and if there were any notes out of place I never heard them. There was a collective timbre that was mellow and skilfully blended, with warm brass, mellifluous woodwind and strings that produced full, comforting sound.

His Fourth Symphony is one of Mahler’s most accessible works. Considering that it seems to have been cobbled together in what little spare time his demanding conducting duties allowed him. Mahler’s original intention for this symphony was a six-movement ‘humoresque’ with alternating instrumental and vocal sections. Mahler considered what he eventually composed took us from earth to heaven: though he considered the atmosphere of the work to be like the sky where the blue that is ever-present can cloud over or darken yet later reappear seemingly renewed and fresh. Mahler drafted three movements in 1899 and by simply adding the song about a child’s vision of heaven, ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (‘The Heavenly Life’), that he had left out of the Third Symphony, it was completed in 1901. Although criticised after its first performance for being ‘full of clownish pranks and grotesque parody’ it is essentially an innocent composition which gloriously intermingles that child’s song, as well as, other folk tunes, with klezmer music, waltzes and marches.

In Haitink’s account it emerged as a serene work; neither too saccharine, nor too dark. Clearly happier with Mahler than the Dvorák – that was conducted with his head firmly in the score – Haitink now engaged more with the various sections of the LSO. The orchestral playing was refined and the excellent, diabolically re-tuned, solo violin from the often flamboyantly swaying guest leader, George Tudorache, was admirably supported by all the contributions from the principal players.

The first movement – with its wonderful slow jog-trotting sleigh bells – has a traditionally formal structure (a sonata) grounded in Mozart and Bach, whilst Mahler rearranges its components in patterns of increasing complexity. Haitink was content to adhere to Mahler’s instructions including about being ‘Very leisurely’ in this movement or ‘Without haste’ in the second one. He was clearly emphasising the Fourth’s cosy – gemütlich – nature and it worked for me. The symphony has few genuine climaxes but those there were duly welled up and soon subsided. Haitink took the slow third movement (marked Ruhevoll) generally quite broadly such that the vehemence of the climactic ‘heaven’s gate’ outburst from the full orchestra – as the violins’ closing lines drift upwards – had considerable impact.

Serenity and sleigh bells return as the soprano sings ‘Das himmlische Leben’. This is marked ‘To be sung in a happy child-like manner: absolutely without parody!’ Here we have a traditional rondo but no rousing conclusion; as we have instead a naïve rumination on the ‘joys’ of heaven including the activities of ‘the butcher Herod’. As the child falls silent the music fades and all we hear is the tolling of the harp. Mahler is saying to us: ‘If you need to ask what all this means, only a child – or perhaps those who have a child’s sense of wonder – can tell you the answer.’ Sally Matthews – a late replacement for the previously announced singer – sang beautifully, with a lovely pure soprano and excellent diction. Even if she made little attempt at childlike tones her face radiated the childlike innocence I suspect Mahler was seeking.

Haitink created an almost trance-like, reflective state to the closing bars and there was perfect quiet at the end that bore witness to the power of the performance. Eventually this self-effacing legendary conductor lowered his hands and there was thunderous applause for all concerned and especially the LSO’s players who – as always – had not disappointed.

This left the big question about the Fourth which I have posed before: how did Mahler hear it himself and want it performed? Sadly, there are no recordings with Mahler conducting to resolve the question, but what we do have are his piano rolls from 1905 which include the final movement of the symphony. Despite his instruction Sehr behaglich (‘Very cosy’) and a further one stating ‘It is of the greatest importance that the singer be extremely discreetly accompanied’ his playing – even allowing for the fact that he may not have been a great pianist – sounds rather eccentric, to put it mildly. Mahler seems to ignore many of the markings in his own score and what we hear is rather like a free interpretation, full of strange rubato and with a vocal line that is exposed and unsupported. Mahler therefore apparently violates all the instructions for interpretation he imposes on others and has left us quite a musical conundrum.

Jim Pritchard

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