Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Haitink in New York – 1

Ravel
Menuet antique
Lieberson
Neruda Songs
Mahler
Symphony No.1

Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink


Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 15 May, 2008
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Bill CooperAfter having appeared with Conductor Emeritus Pierre Boulez in February, for its second visit to New York this season the Chicago Symphony Orchestra arrived with Principal conductor Bernard Haitink. The first of the two programs featured a multi-cultural collage of a stylized French dance, settings of five poems by the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, and Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony.

Menuet antique was Ravel’s first published work, originally for solo piano. 30 years on he brought to it his incredible skill as an orchestrator. Essentially neo-classical, it contains a very Romantic middle section. Haitink and the Chicago Symphony found the perfect expression for both of these stylistic aspects in a very polished performance.

Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” is very personal, a setting of love sonnets, the work written for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Tragically she was to die of cancer soon after the song-cycle’s completion, but she did have time to leave us a recording. Californian Kelley O’Connor is the first artist to take up the difficult task of performing this music after Hunt Lieberson’s death, and comparisons are inevitable.

O’Connor’s is quite a different voice: darker, lusher, but also less focused and less able to project. There were times where she almost blended into the orchestral fabric, a danger any mezzo faces when paired with strings in the same register. More than balance problems alone though one felt that she tried to emphasize the Romantic aspects of the songs, which take us from the first appreciation of love to thoughts on death and parting, over a more dramatic presentation. Haitink took a similar approach, smoothing over the different moods inherent in the text and music, denying us variety of expression and ultimately rendering the cycle fairly monochromatic.

Depth of expression was also sorely lacking in the Mahler. There were some beautiful moments, most memorably the middle section of the third movement, but those were rather the exception. The opening section was reminiscent of anything but the sound of nature, being character-less and much too loud; likewise the opening of the third movement grew to almost forte when Mahler asks for pianissimo throughout. Thus robbed of the ironic character of the Huntsman’s Funeral, Haitink’s decision to employ the whole of the double bass section at the opening was just another nail in the proverbial coffin. This change in the Critical Edition of the score is highly controversial and arbitrary, and the glitches in intonation made a very strong case for going back to the original solo instrument.

Observing Mahler’s markings apparently was not Haitink’s concern, as he barely paid lip-service to the many tempo indications the composer so carefully calibrated to outline the structure of the first movement. The second movement’s main section was Kräftig (strong) to the point of caricature, but certainly not bewegt (moving along), coarse bordering on crude. Although the finale started out with just the right tempo and energy, many of Mahler’s detailed instructions were glossed over. The first Luftpausen went almost unnoticed, and even the important ones at the two big climaxes were barely acknowledged. Similarly, the many notations along the way to slow down here, push ahead there were minimized, and at the glorious final section neither did the horns stand, as Mahler requested, nor did Haitink slow down when the score is marked Triumphal, Pesante; just the opposite, he went faster!

Musical notation is a very inaccurate affair, composers can never write down exactly how their music should sound, much less the sentiment ‘behind’ the notes. Indications of tempo, of expression, of dynamics are a starting point for any interpreter to dig deeper, to find the meaning of a piece of music, its message, its soul. When they are ignored to such a large extent, and when there seems to be so little interpretative viewpoint, even the spectacular playing of the Chicago Symphony could not make up for what was missing – character, atmosphere, and Mahler’s voice.

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