Mahler
Symphony No.6 in A minor
Orchestre National de France
Bernard Haitink

Radio France recording made at performances at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris on 24 & 27 October 2001
CD No: NAÏVE V 4937
Duration: 78 minutes
Reviewed: November 2002
First thoughts stray to whether any more recordings are needed of Mahler’s vast and tragic symphony, especially when Bernard Haitink already has three to his name.
In fact, this is not ’another’ Mahler 6 but an indispensable one. Yet, there’s a complication – hopefully nothing more than me being suspicious. Surprisingly, Haitink omits the first movement’s exposition repeat, not his normal practice (although he did so in an Amsterdam performance in 1968, now in a Q Disc 14-CD Haitink set). There is a suspicion of an edit 10 seconds into this Paris performance that could be from the exposition first-time to second-time (if, indeed, Haitink observed it, although he did in London with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in December 2001), which neatly avoids a cut-and-paste job around the point where Mahler re-introduces the exposition. This might have been done – with Haitink’s permission? – to avoid a second CD. A shame if so.
However, this is an engrossing performance – one to treasure for Haitink’s characteristic refusal to exaggerate or present the music as a cheap thrill. Haitink is inside the music and presents from the very outset that sense of struggle that must exist if the jubilant coda and the remaining movements are to have a through-line to tragedy.
Although this is Mahler’s most classical symphony, it cannot function solely as that. There has to be an understanding of Mahler’s autobiography as written into the musical notes. Haitink has the balance between structure and narrative just about right. He is also inside the inner sanctum of the score – determination, premonitions and wished-for salvation. The vistas of hope that arrive through off-stage cowbells (from 7’30”) or the ’Grecian’ flute solo (from 13’17”) are quite magical. Otherwise, Haitink’s allows this movement its subjugation and glowering and hard-won conclusion; nothing is taken for granted – well, you can’t if you’re trying to avoid annihilation. Nor is it the end of the story.
It now appears that Mahler was very clear that he wanted the slow movement second. Haitink, like most conductors, opts for the Scherzo in this position, its ’spook’ and ’forest creatures’ scenario always made parallel to musical twist and turns. When the slow movement is reached, I’ve no doubt this should follow the first movement – as a tranquil corollary to supposed vindication. Haitink’s fluidly expressive reading is beautiful without being saccharine – nothing is applied and it opens out gloriously.
Having invested the earlier movements with a scenario behind the classicism, Haitink can now unfold the vast finale as both a tightly organised structure and a dramatic series of ’events’ that fell the "hero" (Maher’s term) and equate the final catastrophe to what was pre-ordained in the troubled if determined march-steps that began the symphony. The all-important hammer-blows (just two; Haitink opts to forgo the superstitious third) are appropriately ’wooden’ in timbre and destructive in changing the music’s course; the second one splinters all around it. How well Haitink perceives the near-fatality here and the final (failed) attempt at victory. This trenchant and often-remarkable reading is certainly not gift-wrapped.
I have no idea how often this Orchestra plays Mahler. There is a freshness of response here that suggests not as often as, say, London orchestras. The vibrant timbres of Orchestre National go ideally with Mahler. Nothing is forced or overplayed by Haitink who concentrates on the line and depth of the music. To complete a desirable release, the sound is superb – spacious and full-toned, lucid and tangible. I wish applause had been left out – especially as it crashes in with no allowance of reflective silence: was it really like this at the concert? Instead of fading it down, the clapping is edited to a conclusion, which intensifies speculation about the ’missing’ repeat.
Nevertheless, when the time comes to choose just one recording of Mahler 6, while it will be Michael Gielen’s uncompromising version on Hänssler, I’m also going to try and sneak off with this Haitink.

 

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