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S & H Prom Review

PROM 49: Mahler, Symphony No.6, European Union Youth Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor); Royal Albert Hall, 26th August, 2003 (AR)


Bernard Haitink and Gustav Mahler have become synonymous over the past two decades; he must have conducted Mahler’s Sixth Symphony more than any other living conductor, as well as having had a long and distinguished history of conducting that composer’s other symphonies. Haitink was also Music Director of the European Union Youth Orchestra from 1994 to 1999, its founding ethos being to celebrate the European Ideal of ‘a united community of nations working together for peace, harmony, social justice and human dignity’. Its illustrious conductors have included, amongst others, Giulini, Mehta, Solti, Bernstein and Karajan so this promised to be a red-letter event.

The first movement of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in A Minor, ‘Tragic’ (1903-4) started in a well-mannered and slightly manicured way rather than with the essentially brusque march the composer intended. Its very slowness gave it little sense of urgency and forward momentum (as heard in George Solti’s account with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Decca Ovation: 425 040-2 DM). However, the EUYO’s playing was stylish with the strings having an appropriately strident quality and the percussion great flare and precision. Strikingly intense was Vivian Urlings’s snappy trumpet solo (one minute in) which had a jazzy feel to it.

In the second theme (allegedly a portrait of Alma), Haitink often lost the tension, the music sounding fragmented. He was at his best in the serene interlude of very distant clattering cowbells where he and the EUYO conjured a sense of spaciousness and wonderment of the Austrian landscape. Very often the cowbells are played too loudly in concert, that sense of distant evocation Mahler was striving for too often ignored. The closing passages, however, were resounding, giving a sensation of celebratory joy.

The Scherzo had just the right mélange of the sweet and the sinister, meeting in an acidic sound world of snarling horns, biting percussion and harsh strings; contrasted with a naïve, childlike simplicity from the woodwind it seemed ideal. Haitink’s tight tempi brought out perfectly the implied threat to the ‘innocence of childhood’, the superb EUYO woodwinds inhabiting a Mahlerian sound-world’’ of stark and rugged gruffness. The Andante was surprisingly static with orchestral textures levelled out and homogenised. Haitink’s spaciousness caused the music to lose its sense of flow with the smooth strings barely audible. It was only in the closing passages that the music seemed to ignite with passion and a sense of melancholic anxiety.

Haitink’s rather laid-back approach was better suited to the colossal final movement. Here his broad tempi helped recall the relentless, drawn-out trauma implicit in the score. The opening passages were measured and sustained, as if waking from a bad dream, but the lyrical sections for the strings and woodwinds sometimes came across as too distant. Timpanist Marcus Fischer, however, played with great rhythmic buoyancy, giving this music its essential nailing, forward thrust. As we approached the dying end we experienced a sensation of numbness and exhaustion after the wear and tear of the percussion and brass. The closing bars were full of dread and resignation, with the trombones, and especially the tuba of Kristian Karlstedt, making brooding, dying sounds, slowly ebbing away only to be abruptly shattered by the final death blows from the percussion with death announced in the final pluck on the strings. This had an immediate starkness that brought this work to an abrupt and perfectly judged end. There was a few seconds of reflective silence before the overwhelming applause from a cough-free packed house.

While Haitink’s interpretation was often idiosyncratic, and rather wayward, it was a beautifully played performance by a very mature and professional sounding orchestra. Ultimately it didn’t quite have the impact it should. For that, you need to turn to a performance by Hans Rosbaud with the SWF Sinfonieorchester, April 7th 1961, SWF Musikstudio, Baden-Baden on DATUM: DAT 12303.

Alex Russell

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