Haitink Mahler 6

Symphony No.6 in A minor

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 13 June, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Bernard Haitink has conducted Mahler’s Sixth Symphony regularly in London over the last few years; and it wasn’t that long ago that his fourth recording of it was issued.

A few minor fluffs aside, this was quite simply the best and most convincing performance of any Mahler symphony in a long time and certainly the best I have heard from Haitink since I first heard him conduct Mahler back in the 70s. It has often seemed that the excessive adulation heaped on Haitink’s Mahler has had less to do with the actual quality of the performances and more to do with the dearth of decent Mahler conductors and that Haitink actually took Mahler’s music seriously. Here we were treated to a performance of crushing rightness, the perfect combination of work, orchestra and conductor.

It helps when an orchestra really knows the piece, and the LSO has comparatively recently given memorable Mahler 6s under Boulez and Jansons, especially so with Boulez, and the LSO’s particular qualities are especially suited to this work – power, aggression, and sensitivity. The huge finale seemed to pass in a flash.

Haitink, however much he loves this music, has often seemed correct but curiously inhibited as a Mahler conductor. On this occasion, with a consummate LSO, he was able to cast caution to the winds, and finding more flexibility at key moments and using a wider range of tempos than has sometimes been the case.

The first movement (repeat taken, as is Haitink’s custom, except on his most recent recording, which seems more of a production decision) hit exactly the right tempo, driving forward but not so much as to deny Alma’s theme its full soaring. Whether the scherzo should be second-placed or not, Haitink conducted it with a ferocity to fully match that of the first movement and, indeed, even capped it, and avoided any sense of anti-climax.

The slow movement demonstrated the sheer quality of the LSO’s response. At the beginning of the big horn solo, one has seldom been so aware of the second violins; and just before the final ascent to the movement’s alpine climax the strings have an abrupt forte entrance, here precisely calibrated to allow the bass line in the very next bar to be heard.

In the finale’s tenebrous introduction, Haitink and the LSO distilled a powerfully theatrical atmosphere in the quieter passages – a characteristic of the whole performance – and once the Allegro proper got underway the orchestra simply powered its way through the half-hour, each successive climax drawing forth even greater reserves of tone and commitment. Only two hammer-blows (the third is superstitious), the first especially numbing in its impact. The protracted silence after the final, sullen pizzicato said it all. A great and convincing performance of a difficult work; one can understand why Alban Berg, in a letter to Webern, described Mahler 6 as “the only 6th, despite the Pastoral.”

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