Prom 49: European Mahler

Symphony No.6 in A minor

European Union Youth Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 26 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Thankfully, in contrast to some of this year’s Proms, the only colourful visual element came from the flags of the European Union decked on the platform and from the attire of the ladies of the orchestra. There was also a welcome lack of extra in-house entertainment from the bronchial-ailment collective that has plagued so many performances – which only goes to prove how unnecessary the outbreaks of communal barking. All that AND no applause between movements, AND no mobile ring-tones, AND no idiot managing to ruin a piece’s last chord by being the first to clap!

Maestro Haitink had clearly made up his mind that nobody was going to applaud before he was ready – he brought off the orchestra with one hand and held captive the audience with the other one: and showed that it can be done.

In fact, this was one of the quietest audiences I have ever experienced at a Prom; it must also be said that if a performance of this magnitude and power couldn’t hold a Proms audience still, then nothing would. These young players were totally immersed in the music from the first bar to the final bleak collapse that comes ninety minutes later – their attention span and maturity, whilst admirable, also served to underline the feebleness of some things in Albert Hall in the past few weeks.

Haitink set a brisk but controlled tempo for the first movement, restrained yet managing to conjure up the dull trudging, grim-laden rhythms that haunt the whole work. The oboes wailed in perfect unison and the second main theme (a portrait of Alma Mahler, the composer tells us) was as impulsive and passionate as it can be. The two moods of the second movement were nicely contrasted, one rather erratic and harsh, the other more forgiving and gentle. The third (slow) movement, one of Mahler’s most overtly emotional creations, hushed the audience to new depths of concentration. I am perhaps breaking the final taboo when I say that Rachmaninov came into my mind on more than one occasion – in particular the second arching, sequential theme, which becomes more intense on every appearance. The solo playing here, and indeed throughout, was quite exceptional – particular mention should be made of the cor anglais, trumpet and horn – unfortunately the programme didn’t make clear the names of these gifted players.

Haitink’s pacing of the finale made the concluding cataclysm all the more powerful – the orchestra had just enough in reserve to make it the overwhelming experience it should be. Throughout all this Haitink hardly seemed to break into a sweat – no wasted gestures, no facial contortions, and he permitted himself just one significant leap off the podium as the first hammer blow came crashing down. The orchestra was obviously more than willing to give him everything and more. A truly extraordinary evening that left this listener rather lost for words, which for a reviewer is a bit of a problem.

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