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Seen and Heard Concert Review
Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 3, Berliner Philharmoniker, Bernard Haitink, Barbican, 27th September 2004 (MB)
Anna Larsson, contralto
Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus
Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral
Bernard Haitink’s London Mahler journey has taken us from the finality and resignation of Mahler’s Ninth (with the Wiener Philharmoniker), through to the personal tragedy of the Sixth (with the London Symphony Orchestra) and on to the Pantheism of the Third, in this concert, with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Each of the three concerts has in one way or another proved a revelation, though by far the most extraordinary was the LSO Mahler Sixth, a performance of such illumination and incandescence that words alone do it little justice.
Haitink has not always been the most perceptive Mahlerian, especially under studio conditions, but those who remember his Amsterdam Mahler Festival Third symphony would have located many similar details in this performance. In some respects, Haitink’s conception of the Mahler symphonies has remained remarkably consistent (something that could not be said, for example, of Takashi Asahina who over a much shorter period of conducting the composer radically changed both tempi and musical motives); what late Haitink brings to Mahler, however, is a wealth of insights and a new willingness to allow orchestras a certain tapestry of individuality that makes each performance a uniquely different – and often satisfying – one.
Part of the reason his LSO Mahler Sixth made such an impact was the freshness that this conductor and orchestra brought to the performance. One wondered whether the Berliner’s Mahler would prove as revelatory, based as it is on a long history of mutual partnership. In short, the answer is no. At times this seemed an over-comfortable performance with little sense of risk being taken. Tempi were neither exceptional nor unexceptional. And yet, there were new beginnings in this performance (the oboe’s glissandi in Urlicht, for example,) which suggested that Haitink had returned to the score to uncover new details. In the case of the last movement this worked magnificently; in the case of the first movement one sometimes wondered if the power had been held in reserve at key moments (the opening horns, for example, had less portentousness and less visceral impact than I have heard from this conductor before) rather than developed over the course of the movement itself.
But this is not to undermine the achievement of either Haitink or the Berliner Philharmoniker in a Mahler Third of rare distinction. With an instrument such as the Berliners it is sometimes necessary to write of impeccable detail and playing whilst also referring to a lack of musicality. With Haitink, however, this orchestra plays differently than it does for either Claudio Abbado or Simon Rattle, and that means it offers up different musical equations. Haitink has long revelled in the controlled power of performance, where decibels count for something, but it is questionable that he gets the same results from different orchestras. With the Concertgebouw he gets exactly what he wants – and he does too with the Berliners. This performance positively glittered with wildly emphatic climaxes that seemed forged from iron. One could hear the Niebelungs at work in the sustained, escalating terror of the first movement’s shifts between primordial beginnings and savage marches. These had tectonic force, like vast geological plates moving against each other and creating a kinetic frisson of their own. But this pre-life music achieved so much more in Haitink’s hands. It is often true of this movement that woodwind and brass fight to overwhelm the strings, as the first stirrings of life is established, but Haitink’s achievement was to allude to dark and mysterious beginnings through string playing of uncommon density. Twelve ‘cellos – in a singular display of unison playing that had to be heard to be believed – rose craggily to their mountain rocks to be underpinned by sumptuously deep basses that thundered like brooding Gods. This was evolution in music and it seemed staggering that an orchestra could achieve it so effortlessly.
For once, Haitink made this first movement seem the revolutionary beast it is. Strings, usually the progenitor of lyricism and passion in music, here sounded uncommonly distant (though by the final movement they had re-found their spirituality) and the vibrancy of the marches and brass bands seemed distilled from an age almost as far back in time as the pre-earth beginnings of the music’s opening epic statement. It was all the more shocking to hear Haitink’s minuet immediately afterwards (and without a sustained pause), with its refinement of detail seeming to make sense of the contrasts between the classical and the romantic in a way not often heard in live performances of this symphony. Here, the orchestra’s peerless woodwind came into their own with playing that created the illusion of classical elegance. An oboe bent its stem like a blossoming flower, a flute swayed gently in the air and the strings, with gestures towards serenity and oppressiveness, hovered like a gentle breeze around them. The animalism of the Scherzo was here depicted as a drama of poetic proportions, the playing every bit as extraordinary as the movement’s only human dimension, the vast posthorn solo. The soloist – unnamed in the programme booklet, and playing from the outside of the hall to the left of the stalls – was simply bewitching, evoking not just humanity but the essence of communication, and the voice, itself. Audibly touching his phrases with melancholy, the complexity of Mahler’s orchestration, which seems to define the human and the non-human in almost Oedipal twinnings of musical mood, brought both together into a kind of distilled universe of animal and man. Between the pregnant pauses of the posthorn, Haitink encouraged his players to disregard barlines and tempi in order to suggest the disarray of the animal kingdom. The contrast between the human and the instinctive has never been more strikingly achieved in my experience.
Man comes to us in the form of the contralto voice and again one must praise Haitink’s achievement here of seemingly making music that stands on the brink of immobility advance with a momentum of its own. In part, he was helped by positioning his soloist – Anna Larsson - within the orchestra, beside the harps, but in front of the horns. The effect was a meditation of the human voice that melded almost indistinguishably with the barely audible translucence of the orchestra, making both seem inseparable from the other. Larsson bared her soul in this music as Albrecht Mayer’s oboe solo conveyed grief and anxiety through its strenuous glissandi. Heaven is glimpsed in the Fifth movement, and here the Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral reprised the tolling of bells with the requisite innocence of youth.
The key to the performance so far had been Haitink’s willingness to indulge his players’ individuality of timbre and voice to achieve the miracle of Mahler’s creation. If it came at a small price, it was that the risk paid off too handsomely with playing that was so effortless it at times seem pre-meditated rather than spontaneous. That changed in the final movement, played to a spellbound audience that seemed inexorably caught up in Haitink’s handling of it. This is music that at times has such fragility it literally snaps under the pressure, but at the same time it is music of striking power and striking beauty and it is perhaps the most truly symphonic music in the entire work. Its first fifty bars are for strings only – and what a beautiful sound the Berliners made in an acoustic that did not generally flatter this orchestra’s natural warmth of tone. In contrast to the opening of the symphony, where Haitink had underplayed the grandeur of the epic that is about to begin, here the conductor seemed intent on unleashing the orchestra’s reins, just as Mahler himself had restored the balance of the orchestra to the movement itself. Pacing was perfect – indeed, real time seemed an irrelevance, with Haitink making its trajectory seem simply timeless – as was the conductor’s ability to sustain incredibly precise dynamics. Just before Fig 23, Haitink varied the strings’ bow length in the violins to create even greater intensity of tone and the tempi change at Fig 25 was achieved with a seamless transition. The crescendo which leads to the passage with unison playing on first the second violins, then ‘cellos, first violins and violas was as magically (and as spaciously) done as I have ever heard, either live or on record. The assertion of D major appeared in a crowning chorale of eight horns. Thrilling timpani, with both timpanists landing their strokes with Siamese twin like precision, brought the work to its majestic close as Man triumphs as the highest earthly creature.
Mahler may well have been flattered that his vast paen to nature here received the kind of performance that almost prefigured a kind of unfallen human perfection. Apart from the corporate virtuosity of this magnificent orchestra, countless orchestral solos – from the plaintive (and to this reviewer utterly unforgettable) trombone playing of Christhard Gössling in the first movement to the serendipitous flute solo of Emmannuel Pahud in the final movement – captured the essence of the Nietzchian Superhero. No greater compliment could have been paid to Bernard Haitink himself than the audience’s response to this performance: ghostly, transfigured silence as the conductor lowered his arms in completion of this Mahlerian journey. Some who heard one of the three concerts this orchestra and conductor gave in Berlin before coming to London have called it the performance of a lifetime. In many ways it was exactly that.