Haitink Mahler 9

Symphony No.9

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 28 April, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Following last month’s opening salvo of two Concertgebouw Orchestra concerts, the Barbican’s “Haitink at 75” celebrations continued with this one-off appearance by the Vienna Philharmonic. Still to come are the LSO in June, the Berlin Philharmonic in September and Staatskapelle Dresden, Haitink’s current orchestra, in November.

Not surprisingly the queue for returns was long. I believe this is the first time the VPO has been at the Barbican and the players took a little time to settle. Expectations ran high – as so often, though, the so-perceived ‘celebrity occasion’ and a great performance did not necessarily go hand in hand. What we got certainly compelled respect and admiration, but the music did not move as fully as it should or can.

Least satisfactory was the gigantic first movement. Everything was clear, each paragraph led logically into the next, tempo choices were eminently sensible, and, save one or two rough edges, the orchestra was technically in control (although nowhere near as impressive as Mahler’s ‘other’ orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, under Kurt Masur, playing this music in this hall in 2000). As an exposition it was admirable but what was lacking was the sense of abject terror behind the notes, of a gigantic landscape traversed. Curiously, given the enormous blazing climaxes, much of the first movement is remarkably inward as the music hauls itself gradually and painfully out of a black pit towards the next eruption; however these quiet passages must never lose their inexorable forward momentum, whereas in this performance they tended to become becalmed. Also, for much of the first movement different instrumental groups are frequently directed to play radically different dynamics simultaneously; too often these were handled rather gingerly, the grotesque aspects smoothed over.

The Ländler fared rather better, the Vienna Philharmonic on home ground. The base tempo was certainly on the slow side and, consequently, subsequent sections were not sufficiently differentiated. Haitink’s microscopically detailed approach, very definitely three beats to the bar, threatened to undermine the dance element, but better this than a too quick tempo, which trivialises the movement.

The ‘Rondo Burleske’ evoked the right thundering anger, the distinctive sound qualities of orchestra with its narrow-bore brass and tart wind working to the music’s advantage, especially in the bittersweet episode at the movement’s heart. However the successive increases of tempo at the close sounded too calculated; a degree of danger is in order. Here we got the notes.

Best of all was the Adagio finale where the inimitable Vienna strings came fully into their own, offset by some notably fine cor anglais playing. Indeed the orchestra’s very distinctive tonal qualities are particularly valuable as a kind of umbilical link with Mahler’s soundworld. Doubtless much has changed in the near- 100 years since the VPO premiere – not least the presence of some half-dozen women in the orchestra (not all listed in the orchestra’s personnel) – yet the combination of Vienna’s distinctive instruments and the Orchestra’s sense of tradition keeps us close to Mahler’s probable intentions.

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