Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Laurie Watt
Reviewed: 5 June, 2011
Venue: Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Bernard Haitink was back with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for four concerts of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony culminating in this Sunday-afternoon performance. I have been in Orchestra Hall a number of times but this was the first time I had been seated in the Stalls. For a concertgoer used to the Royal Festival Hall in London, from the OH Stalls it is disconcerting that one can’t see anything of the orchestra save the massed strings, which included thirty-four First and Second Violins seated together. It’s a very soft-sounding string section – far removed from the searing glitz of the Solti years, but where was the rich viola sound Mahler 9 so badly needs? As a result the strings as a whole, except the double basses which were always gloriously present, did not dominate until the finale where they were transformed. The resulting balance tended to cover the woodwinds, especially in tutti passages and also took the edge off the trumpets; no bad thing you might say, but it would have been nice to hear them cutting through a bit more. The horns sounded generally very fine. Dale Clevenger was leading as he has done, amazingly, since 1967, but despite some extraordinary artistry at times the weight of tone and security was not always ideal; the distinctive Chicago heavy brass came though massively though and there was wonderful weight to the bass drum.
Is the Ninth Symphony a peon to life or one to death? Having superstitiously avoided terming Das Lied von der Erde as No.9, Mahler then produced a symphony boldly bearing this number. I have long been disconcerted at how the symphony wearily totters into being, like an old man, with double basses, fourth horn and harp, and very few performances have any flow at this point, and this one was no exception. Haitink took the opening movement at a sensible pace and graded the escalating climaxes without point-making; I would have liked greater string articulation and body, at times, but Haitink also conjured pianissimos to die for (which may be appropriate for the symphony, of course), always audible and with a magically achieved inner intensity. The huge climax (capped by a tam-tam that was all bass and with little white heat, if very exciting) followed by those massive long-short brass chords was devastating. The great open space at the end of the movement occupied by horn and flute in magical duet was spellbinding in its control and artistry.
The second movement, in the tempo of a moderate Ländler, is a curious mixture of tongue-in-cheek – angular and sardonic – and reflection, and is wonderfully scored, especially in the extremes of the woodwind. Haitink’s great talent is to allow music to speak for itself without quirks, but vulgarity is most definitely needed at certain points here. He got it from the brass, but the string-players truly needed to let the rosin fly a bit more; they were all frightfully well behaved. Towards the end of the movement, the halving of the tempo in the middle of the final recapitulation of the opening figure was a touch clumsy. I’m being picky, perhaps, but it is a moment I always look out for and so effective if the speed-relationships have been perfectly judged. Ensemble, otherwise, was immaculate right down to the perfectly balanced pay-off on contrabassoon and piccolo. The third-movement ‘Rondo-Burleske’ is marked ‘very defiantly’, and it was, superbly and savagely played with a huge head of steam generated at a phenomenal pace at the close. That great moment two-thirds through, in the eye of the storm as it were, when the trumpet shines forth with a transmutation of an earlier theme was sublime.
The last movement was breathtaking; the body of sound produced by the strings was overwhelming. The finale builds through to that huge bass drum-underpinned crescendo which promises a maelstrom but is but a cliff to suspended space. Later the music develops again through perfectly gauged increases in volume to a release akin to a shaft of light and another of Mahler’s great horn melodies. The composer really does face his own mortality and the concluding measures where time goes into a sublime stasis found the orchestra in the most serenely intense pianissimo of acceptance and away to nothing.