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Prom 71, Turnage and Mahler: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.9.2008 (MB)

Turnage – Chicago Remains (European premiere)
Mahler – Symphony no.6 in A minor

The warmth of applause for Bernard Haitink as he walked towards the podium testified once again to the affection and gratitude London and this country more generally will always feel for the saviour of the Royal Opera. This, however, is the first time that we have had the opportunity to hear Haitink as Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. What was immediately striking – and continued to be so throughout – was the extent to which Haitink has continued Daniel Barenboim’s work in ridding this great orchestra of the excessive brashness that could sometimes disfigure its performances under Sir Georg Solti (and beyond him, Fritz Reiner). At the same time, however, a little more bite might not have gone amiss in the otherwise excellent performance of Mahler’s sixth symphony.

First on the menu was the European premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Chicago Remains. Following hard on the heels of a fine performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, I was inevitably reminded of the earlier work by the opening percussion figures, although difference announced itself too: the mechanical sounds of the city rather than pantheistic ecstasy. The suggestion of a train whistle brought to mind Chicago’s Union Station. Indeed, I fancied that the entire progress of the quarter-hour work suggested a train journey, with as much emphasis upon the journey as upon the train, thereby distinguishing it from a work such as Honegger’s Pacific 231. The gleaming Chicago skyline was almost audibly visible too, and so was a seamier side to city life, jazz being suggested through instrumentation and turns of phrase rather than compositional method, which was undoubtedly more substantial. Few composers would neglect the opportunity to allow this orchestra’s fabled brass section to shine; Turnage did not. Following some more brutalistic moments, characterised by trumpet fanfares and great chordal slabs of orchestral sound, the final section of the work proved touchingly elegiac, not least in a superbly-taken oboe solo melody. Haitink is not most noted for commitment to contemporary music, although a glance at his Concertgebouw programmes belies any suggestion of undue conservatism; recordings can often deceive. At any rate, it is difficult to imagine that Turnage could have hoped for better advocacy than he received here, either from the orchestra or from the conductor, who had also premiered his song-cycle Some Days at the 1991 Proms.

The first movement of the Mahler began at quite a brisk pace, relentless even, which is not inappropriate. Once again, I do not think the Royal Albert Hall helped, since there were some odd balances from my seat, in spite of Haitink’s general care with blending. I was also a little surprised to see the cowbells on stage. Whilst the orchestra played superbly, it lacked that last ounce of ‘character’ of some ensembles, at least at their best. One of Haitink’s strengths was illustrated by his willingness to let the development take its time, to linger even in some passages. This seems to be a more pronounced characteristic of his present view of this work than earlier recordings would suggest. Whilst there was not a radical reinterpretation of this movement, it was not so ‘tragic’ as it can often sound.

In the Scherzo, placed second, the opening properly shadowed the opening of the first movement. This underlined the rightness of Haitink’s decision concerning movement order: musical considerations came first. The woodwind’s skeletal shiver was well-nigh perfect and the horns in concert sounded marvellous. There was great rhythmic strength but also a duly ‘Classical’ – if not in the authenticists’ sense – yielding for the trio sections. Moreover, and perhaps slightly to my surprise, Haitink did not shrink from bringing out the modernistic strangeness of the orchestration. Each section was clearly characterised, with sometimes daring contrasts of tempo, and if I occasionally wondered whether this was slightly to the detriment of the whole, my doubts were confounded, since it ultimately ‘worked’. This movement marked, I think, the true highpoint of the performance.

The opening of the third movement was somewhat neutral – and rightly so. It needs plenty of space to be built upon, and even then, not too much. There is – and was in this performance – no contradiction between the salon-ish quality of the theme and the wealth of musical riches that Schoenberg discovered in his celebrated analysis of the movement. Haitink traced the contours of the principal theme’s progress as lovingly as Schoenberg had. A beautiful horn solo pointed the way forward to the Nachtmusik of the Seventh Symphony. Yet there remained a nagging doubt that the movement was just a little underplayed, a little too placid, although this is certainly preferable to erring in the opposite direction. (Remember ‘Gergiev’s Mahler’?) The great climax was, however, all the more powerful for its lack of exaggeration. Indeed, its non-neurotic quality was positively Brucknerian, perhaps not surprisingly given Haitink’s greatness as a Bruckner conductor. The end of the movement found a wonderful peace, physically and metaphysically, subsiding into a blissful nothingness.

With the opening of the finale, it seemed that unalloyed tragedy had finally come upon us. (Should it have been there from the outset? I cannot deny that that would have been a preferable course to me, but there are alternative paths.) Yet the movement as a whole still exhibited at times a ‘Classical’ restraint, although terror certainly raised its head with the cataclysmic hammer-blows. The contrapuntal music was as well handled as I have ever heard, exhibiting both clarity and tonal weight, in a fashion that reminded me of the final movement of the Fifth Symphony. Haitink was clearly alert to links, thematic and otherwise, between the three Rückert symphonies.  The brass sounded predictably yet nevertheless wonderfully Fafner-like at the end and there was true desolation as we achieved nihilistic closure. My only real reservation was that, in the final analysis – and this probably goes for the performance as a whole – the performance did not quite sound as though it had been conceived in one long span, Haitink’s long experience in the symphonic repertoire notwithstanding. It is unfortunate that I still had Pierre Boulez’s Berlin performance from last year resounding in my memory. Not only had Boulez’s reading exhibited that Furtwänglerian quality of Fernhören – even in non-Furtwänglerian repertoire – but it had truly sounded a fitting performance for Holy Saturday, as Christ lay in the bonds of Hell. Despite Boulez’s reputation, it was Haitink’s performance that ultimately sounded more ‘observed’ and ‘detached’.   

Mark Berry

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