Haitink at 75 – Berlin

Mahler
Symphony No.3 in D minor

Anna Larsson (contralto)

Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus
Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 September, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Another contribution to the Barbican’s “Haitink at 75” series, which has already seen appearances with the LSO and with the Concertgebouw and Vienna orchestras. Probably this Berlin date was the most eagerly awaited concert of the year, Bernard Haitink’s reading of Mahler’s longest symphony – the epic Third, with its trajectory from the primeval to the power of love via nature and spirituality – and it did not disappoint. Haitink, maybe the greatest conductor alive today, and the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s greatest orchestras, came together for such an assured and perfectly judged performance of this 100-minute, six-movement symphony that confirmed all one’s expectations of this partnership, one of mutual and genuine admiration. For Haitink it was sufficient to give Concertmaster Toru Yasunaga a warm handshake, and a more urgent gesticulation to get the orchestra to stand and acknowledge the audience’s ovation.

This was a magnificent rendition, with the relatively dry acoustic of the Barbican Hall and the impressively quiet audience allowing the bass drum rhythms in the sprawling first movement to sound particularly clearly. Yet the acoustic did blossom and worked atmospherically well in the third movement’s offstage posthorn solo, sounding from the foyer to the audience’s left.

Haitink’s conception – building from the almost 40-minute, and tautly controlled ‘Summer marches in’ first movement, through the dancing second and third movements, to the seamless transition of the two vocal movements into the valedictory paean to love – is as impressive as it ever was. I can’t have been the only person whose whole body tingled with the final peroration as if the hall itself was vibrating to the timpani beats and expansive chords.

It was one of those performances that seem to be eminently beyond criticism, even if it didn’t quite overcome me in the way that Haitink’s 1999 Proms performance, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, did. In fact, Haitink offered no surprises – although the keening of oboe and cor anglais in the fourth movement Nietzsche setting almost bordered on Rattle’s mannered way on his CBSO/EMI recording CBSO. That apart, Haitink conducted an account of the score that was totally honest, with no interpretative accretions to mar the view. He remains the most surefooted and reliable orchestral guide and this first-ever visit by Berliner Philharmoniker to the Barbican can be adjudged a total triumph.

The players – it is a surprise how young the Philharmonic’s roster is now – are constantly aware of their wider orchestral whole, and seem visibly engaged not only in their own playing but in the playing of their comrades. Principals glanced not only to their section members but to other sections too; and, in the thundering timpani-led peroration, the second timpanist stared only at the principal to ensure total synchronisation of the all-important repeated beats.

“Haitink at 75” comes to a close with the visit of Staatskapelle Dresden on 2 November (also in Birmingham on the 3rd), and – with Lorin Maazel’s cancellation of his LSO Schubert/Bruckner cycle – Haitink steps in to conduct three December concerts (12, 15 & 19). And, hopefully, many more concerts after that.



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