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S & H Concert Review

London Matinée Season: Mahler, Symphony No.6 in A minor, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, RFH, 9th December 2001 (MB)

The Royal Concertgebouw are now very frequent, and welcome, visitors to London bringing with them big works which other visiting orchestras tend to eschew (this is the second Mahler symphony the RCO have brought to London in just over a year). This does create some problems – the sheer demands Mahler makes on his players for the Sixth tests even the greatest orchestras and this performance was by no means perfectly played (brass, as always with this orchestra, can sometimes ‘lose’ intonation); yet despite this, the performance scaled Olympian heights, one almost humanised by the fallibility of the players. This was a raw, nerve-shredding interpretation which stilled a packed Festival Hall and left many drenched with a sense of shock afterwards. And although the Amsterdammers had arrived in London at 10.30 on Sunday morning for this afternoon performance their sense of empathy with this most tragic of Mahler’s symphonies was absolute.

This particular performance of Mahler’s Sixth was gripping from first note to last, and by the final movement utterly devastating to hear. Earlier in the day I had listened to Sinopoli’s Philharmonia recording of this symphony – a fabulous performance deconstructed in quite extraordinary fashion. Bernard Haitink takes almost 10 minutes off Sinopoli’s timings – yet is equally revelatory, albeit in a more traditional, focussed way. Tempi are fluid, yet the conception is anything but classical. At a breathtaking speed during the first movement Haitink sets up the luminosity of this work’s bleak tension so by the final movement the catastrophe and darkness are nakedly realised. There are greater extremes in a Haitink Mahler Sixth than in virtually any other conductor’s vision of the work today – the violence and pessimism of the opening and closing movements invasive, the glowing beauty of the andante a calmness before the final storm. It is symmetrical, moving between lightness and darkness like a scythe, and profoundly unsettling.

There is, in the last movement, enough tragedy presented to us for Haitink to ignore the third hammer blow: in few performances has the shadow of tragedy so tellingly hung over this work that the third hammer stroke becomes an irrelevance. Coming as they do after moments of optimism in the music Haitink’s way is to dramatise their significance within the context of a larger picture. They are literally earth shattering – yet Haitink’s response is to whip up the orchestral response in to Homeric heroism, violently projected, and desolate because of it. This is truly the end of the Wunderhorn years.

The glory of this performance, however, was Haitink’s control over the players – and the orchestration. Although he used a score, this was never an earthbound performance (I imagined him conducting with his eyes closed during much of it) – and, yet rarely have I heard such a large orchestra sound so quiet, with pianissimos given a breathtaking clarity and poise. The sublimity was to approach the dynamics as written – and this Haitink did, echt Mahler.

The vastness of the orchestra almost masks the brilliance with which Mahler uses it – and yet Haitink achieved exceptionally natural balances. The strings during the first movement ebbed and flowed with a sumptuous glow, the brass during the last flaying like horses in anticipation of battle. This was visceral stuff which few, if any, orchestras in the world play as naturally as the Concertgebouw. This was an unforgettable concert, in every way as satisfying as this orchestra’s superb Mahler Tenth under their current music director, Riccardo Chailly.

Marc Bridle


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