Haitink Mahler 1

Symphony No.96 in D (Miracle)
Symphony No.1 in D

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 December, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

No one can failed to have noticed that this year has celebrated Bernard Haitink’s 75th-birthday, a landmark celebrated in style with an outstanding series of concerts at the Barbican Hall orchestras from Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna and Dresden. The LSO also contributed, and to round off the year came three extra Haitink programmes, courtesy of the cancellation of Lorin Maazel’s Bruckner/Schubert cycle.

Perhaps Haitink was demob happy – or maybe the LSO simply decided to play its collective socks off for him – for here he was visibly energised, throwing caution to the wind and conducting with a level of freedom (as well as his customary care) which is seldom encountered from him.

A slimmed-down LSO (founded on just three double basses) nonetheless gave one of the most virtuoso big-band performances of a Haydn symphony it has been my good fortune to hear since the days of George Szell. (This was Haitink’s third LSO Haydn 96 in two-and-a-half years!) Besides the sheer quality of orchestral response, there was also tangible relish and joyous exuberance to the playing. Speeds in the outer movements were swift – from Haitink the finale had a thrusting momentum which was so much more than merely fast. Immaculate solo work throughout, especially the delicious subtly varied oboe-playing of Kieron Moore. This was Haydn playing not only impassioned but also full of wit.

The LSO has long had an affinity with Mahler 1 – with Solti, Horenstein and Kubelik. Haitink has conducted the symphony innumerable times. This was the sort of performance one hopes to but seldom encounters. There was a quite extraordinary rightness and certainty of purpose from first note to last. What came as a surprise though was the level of imagination. Haitink has occasionally seemed too literal in Mahler. Not here. There was relaxation and a beautiful flexible singing line throughout. All-important pp and ppp dynamics were precisely observed enabling countless details to emerge. This restraint meant that the first movement’s only climax registered with full force. The Ländler’s tempo was perfectly judged, the playing forceful but never coarse, and the trio at a relaxed tempo had a wistful gentle quality.

In the ‘funeral march’ the extreme care and suppression of dynamics paid rich dividends: little-heard details registered fully, the ‘Mit Parodie’ section avoided being hammed up and the tender folksong at the movement’s core had a heart-breaking gentleness. In the finale the LSO was in its element – playing with focussed power, but what was equally remarkable were the quiet sections, suspended in time, as the symphony came full circle and returned to its roots. A great performance.

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