Dresden Crisis Appeal Concert

Symphony No.6 in A minor

RCM Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 February, 2003
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

The second of two performances of Mahler’s epic, no-way-out, tragic Sixth Symphony, given free but with a post-concert collection to raise funds to help the recently restored then flooded-out Dresden Hochschule für Musik. The loss of instruments, scores, archives and performing areas, and a whole lot more, is bringing an international response of assistance. The coffers seemed to be swelled appreciably after this performance, which could not have been a finer advert for the RCM or such cultural concerns.

Given the location for the fund-raising, maybe Strauss should have been the composer; perhaps something more optimistic than Mahler 6 would have been appropriate. Equally, a work such as this reflects life and we all identify with it. It scarcely matters, for this was an astonishing rendition. Should I qualify that with “for a student orchestra”? No! For most of the time one forgot who was playing – such was the expertise given to this emotionally and physically demanding score. Equally, one forgot who was conducting too. This is meant as the biggest possible compliment. Haitink, now Conductor of Staatskapelle Dresden, had his focus on the music and that alone. Typical Haitink, one might say, and that’s why he’s a great conductor. There were times, partly thanks to the audience’s concentration, that I felt this music was being played just for me, Haitink with a direct line to Mahler, the players subsumed in their task.

Haitink’s Mahler 6 is a familiar interpretation. There was a recent London performance with the Royal Concertgebouw, and there’s a new CD compiled from performances in Paris (in the context of the latter, it’s worth noting that Haitink observed the exposition repeat at the RCM, just as he had done with the Dutch orchestra), and his recent LPO Mahler 2 impressed my colleague Nick Breckenfield. This RCM Mahler 6 was recognisably Haitink’s – gritty, non-sensational, lucid and long-term – all of a piece and deeply satisfying. Of course, Haitink had to start from scratch with the RCM students (prepared initially by Neil Thomson and section coaches from various London orchestras), and this 90-minute reading had his moniker on it from start to finish.

He captures the burden of the first movement as well as anyone and better than most. The seemingly victorious coda wasn’t easily achieved – as should be the case – and the ensuing Scherzo (which it seems Mahler really did want placed third) here convinced in the ’wrong’ place as a disturbed mirror image of the striving first movement. The Andante moderato was distilled with a sense of wonder, light radiating from darkness. The vast finale was trenchant and encompassed heroics, fate, false redemption and final extinction. If the (two) hammer blows were curiously ineffective (although very visual), Haitink’s attention to detail, not least in the string parts, was ample compensation as he steered this juggernaut of a movement unerringly and with unassuming mastery. The closing bass drum and pizzicato note was unanimous, not always the case, and the audience refrained from immediate applause, effectively following the conductor and reflecting in silence, which is quite rare these days.

The ambient, opulent even, yet focussed acoustic of the RCM’s Concert Hall played its part in the vivid presentation; sound envelops the listener in just the right way. The brass could have played down a little more in places, although balances were generally as considered as might be expected, and the whole was given with a conviction and sureness that spoke volumes about the players and their maestro for the evening. Afterwards, Haitink graciously thanked the audience for coming and the orchestra for its “motivation” and said he’d had a “wonderful week”. It was certainly a wonderful performance.

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