London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette
Reviewed: 25 October, 2009
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
Bernard Haitink led the London Symphony Orchestra in a brilliant but ultimately frustrating performance of Mahler’s final completed symphony.
The orchestra, for its part, lived up to and beyond its reputation for excellence. The rear desks of violins (Firsts and Seconds grouped together) were seated a couple of meters from the left stage wall, and double basses a similar distance from the right. This may have accounted for a string sound that was warm and deep, something all too rarely heard in the notoriously prickly acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall. And while balances did slightly favor the strings and brass, the woodwinds were never buried in the fortissimos; in fact, balances were remarkably transparent even in the most forceful music.
The LSO was fully engaged with the music and conveyed Haitink’s direction with uncompromising focus. Haitink has greatly reconsidered his interpretation of this colossal, valedictorian work in the two-plus decades since his stunning Christmas 1987 farewell performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (issued a few years ago on DVD). To my great disappointment, this new view sells the work short.
The first movement was taken for the most part at a fleet andante tempo, imparting to the music an inexorable forward momentum that caused the louder climactic passages to come across as too hard-driven. The movement was at its best in the quietest passages, though this music took on an air that was too poker-faced and detached, despite some beautiful playing.
The opening of the second movement seemed just right in mood and tempo, the Ländler music having an ideal balance of rustic flavor and timbral bite. Yet, the second theme, bearing the tempo marking poco più mosso, was a few degrees too beautiful, sounding as if all of the rough edges had been filed off. The Rondo-Burleske third-movement was far too gentle. The main theme chugged along at a vigorous tempo – when it should be flying forward with ferocity. Grotesquery and manic exaggeration were completely absent, robbing the movement of harrowing effect, though the clarinets did let loose a couple of welcome snarls. The quieter sections, however, effectively balanced placid music with a sense of underlying tension; more’s the pity that the wilder music didn’t present a strong enough contrast.
The final movement is explicitly marked Molto adagio with the opening two bars inscribed “Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend” (Very slow and still held back). Those opening two bars had poignancy to spare, and the opening was appropriately ‘very slow’, but soon seemed to shift into andante territory, going beyond the “etwas drängend” (somewhat urgent) explicitly spelled out by Mahler. Tempo choices undermined drama and coherence; instead of a flowing and ebbing effect, the result was episodic and brusque up until the coda, Haitink suddenly assuming a proper tempo and legato. The final minutes deftly created the effect of a denouement disappearing line by contrapuntal line, then note by note, finally settling on the final D flat sixth chord that itself vanished into the ether.
There were also issues with the audience – including what sounded like a German-speaking attendee saying something from one of the left tiers during the hushed opening, loud enough to elicit a fair number of dirty looks. There was also more than the usual number of coughs during the closing measures of the symphony: I am becoming less optimistic with each passing month that this city will ever see audiences that truly appreciate the quality of assembled talent and respect the sensitivities of those they share a hall with.