LSO/Haitink – Schubert’s Fifth & Mahler’s Fourth

Symphony No.5 in B flat
Symphony No.4

Klara Ek (soprano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 17 October, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Matthias CreutzigerAn enthusiastic, capacity audience greeted Bernard Haitink and were rewarded beyond measure with a performance of two symphonies that displayed all of the hallmarks that have made Haitink a conductor to be treasured: his attention to and expression of detail, and the response that he manages to coax from the London Symphony Orchestra is a partnership that reveals so much within the music.

This performance of Schubert’s Fifth, which Haitink caressed from first note to last, was expansive and seductive, tinged with mystery. Haitink was not ‘safe’, the lyrical beauty of the first movement’s opening banished by intense, driven statements. The slow movement never dwelt in sentimentality even through moments of pining stasis. No cheer was derived from the outbursts of the third movement, restfulness banished. Vigour from the strings, with flourishes of brilliance from woodwinds made the final movement unflagging – considered music-making throughout.

Mahler 4 showed Haitink’s mastery of this composer. This was an account in which a light-touch probed the symphony’s dark edges with devastating results – unease during the first movement’s inexorable build to a triumphant climax: “wow”! The rustic nature of the music was coaxed out, and so too its sweep, all above the shadows, which lingered. The second movement ticked along merrily enough, and the occasional devilish outbursts from Gordon Nikolitch’s ‘mistuned’ violin gave rise to tension.

Klara Ek. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgThe slow movement was the emotional core and a triumph of architecture. ‘Distant’ strings, a steady heartbeat, exquisite links between phrases – tender footsteps from Fredrik Ekdahl’s bassoon solos – all gave rise to a spellbinding account. The clamour for the violent outburst was a great effort, and then there was grace – Amen – before all is lost, until … sleigh-bells return, and the fourth movement (taken attacca) offers a child’s view of heaven, Haitink drawing out phrases, lingering where necessary. Klara Ek (replacing the ill Christine Schaefer) did not have the expressiveness required but her voice was ‘childish’ and innocent, and Haitink accompanied with subtlety. Closing with melting phrases from violins against the harp, there was no hurry to finish until the fade to silence.

The end of an era was marked in this concert: the retirement of John Lawley, LSO Second Oboe and, 1992-1990, LSO Chairman. This was a great occasion on which to bow out.

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