Mahler 5 – Haitink

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Orchestre National de France
Bernard Haitink

Radio France recording made at performances at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris on 30 June and 1 July 2004

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: September 2005
CD No: NAÏVE V 5026
Duration: 78 minutes

This is Bernard Haitink’s fourth commercial recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – all but the first (his original Concertgebouw version, from December 1970) recorded live (and followed by a Christmas day matinee from 1986 and, five years later, his Berlin Philharmonic remake). This current release follows his truncated Mahler Six with Orchestre National de France (in that the first movement repeat has seemingly been excised to fit the performance on to one CD: Naïve V4937), and one wonders if another Haitink Mahler cycle might be in the offing?

There is no problem in fitting Mahler Five on to one CD, but Haitink is expansive enough here to almost fill a disc’s (nominal) 80-minute length. Listed as just over 78 minutes, it certainly exceeds not only his earlier recordings (1970 was 71 minutes and 1986 was 73) but also those by numerous other conductors. Indeed, in my collection none exceeds it: Dohnányi, 68; Bernstein (CBS/Sony), Rattle and Sinopoli all around the 69-minute mark; Nott 72, Tennstedt (live, 1988) 73; Edo de Waart, 74; and Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic, 75.

Unlike Celibidache or Giulini, Haitink is not – at least in my ken – known for choosing for slower tempos that might be thought commensurate to growing older. Indeed his current (2005/6) Beethoven cycle with the LSO (to be released in due course on LSO Live) would argue the other way – so virile and brisk have the performances so far been – but that just makes this version of Mahler Five all the more interesting. The first two movements seem to have gained a minute or so since 1986, and the third – already a minute longer in 1986 to that of 1970 – has added another two. Curiously, the latest Adagietto is the shortest of them all, and we should take into account that the justifiably enthusiastic French audience is allowed some 40 seconds of acclamation at the end, making Haitink’s way with the finale pretty consistent over the years.

But it’s the way the extra time has been used that is fascinating. Particularly in the second and third movements, those nostalgic or reflective reaches (misnomer in the case of the second movement, as the slower music presages the bliss that the work only attains in the finale) are held as if made of gossamer – noticeably slower than in other performances, but perfectly judged in relation to the overall architecture, to highlight the contrasts inherent in Mahler’s score. In short, it has not only forced me to rethink the work, but also opened up a new world within it.

Of course, musical architecture is one of Haitink’s fortes, but that is not to suggest that inner detail does not appear at every juncture. Then there is the distinctive French orchestral timbres – a rather nasal, querulous trumpet to start, intoning its triplet rhythm – and the little bassoon figure after the horn that introduces the finale, I’m surely not mistaking the different timbre of a French bassoon rather than the ubiquitous German (Heckel) bassoon? There are relatively few French recordings of Mahler, and here Haitink seems to have revelled in the different possibilities a French orchestra could add to the music. I was certainly impressed and with a faithful recording and an admirably still audience, this recording has come out a treat.

I can’t remember an opportunity in the last 25 years to have actually been able to hear Haitink conduct this work in Britain. It is one of those pieces that seem so well-known that it surprises me that some conductors have been rather coy about it. Even Rattle (am I right that he once said he would never conduct it?) came to it very late with the CBSO in 1997, and it was eventually the penultimate Mahler symphony he recorded (in his first performances with Berliner Philharmoniker as music director) and though Haitink has continued to perform it, it does not seem his favourite Mahler.

Here though, perhaps not to all tastes, it comes up fresh in a thought-provoking way. Stand-back and let it persuade you. You may want to skip the rather flowery note (or at least its English translation – “It is customary to consider the vast continent of Mahler’s symphonies as falling into three distinct massifs” or “the last part begins with one of those great pools of music which Mahler is so skilled in creating” – the latter’s connotations really does not bear thinking about!) – but the characteristic white-branding of these live Radio France recordings brings with it a snow-covered formal French garden with a large heart etched out in footprints. This (forgive the pun) gets to the heart of the matter – that the Adagietto is a love-song for Alma, not the music that Visconti shoehorned, demise-laden style, into “Death in Venice”. In keeping his fourth movement to one of the swiftest that I have on record, on top of his more reflective understanding of the second and third movements, Haitink makes a good case in this performance for rethinking the score.

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