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Schubert and Mahler: Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 13.10.2009 (GDn)

Schubert – Symphony no.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’

Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Intensity, passion and energy, but all at stately, measured tempos, this evening’s concert was classic Haitink. He may be eighty years old, but he shows no signs of letting up, continuing to make regular appearances with the world’s top orchestras, and almost always to conduct the longest and most emotionally draining works in the symphonic repertoire. Only two weeks ago we heard him direct the Chicago Symphony at the Festival Hall, the symphonic colossus then being Bruckner 7, and now he returns conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s equally monumental Das Lied von der Erde. And it is a testament to his artistic vision that both of these performances were utterly distinctive of his approach. They are different orchestras, of course, and each has different strengths, but Haitink is able to bring out the inner Concertgebouw in each, creating rich, coherent textures, sustained melodic lines and an unparalleled sense inner musical purpose.

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony opened the concert. Haitink was true to form here, clearly defining the melodic contours and contrapuntal textures through a combination of steady tempi and precisely delineated orchestral colour. The one exception was the opening cello theme, which he allowed to half-emerge but remain elusive and nebulous, both at the start and at each of its reiterations. This allowed him to set up satisfying, and structurally significant, contrast between this and the crisp articulation of the other themes. The climaxes in this first movement were something really special, Haitink’s pacing and interpretive continuity building up to moments of acute emotional intensity. A slight edge came into the string sound in few of these louder passages, a sign of just how hard he was pushing the orchestra, but that is the only complaint I would have of the orchestral playing, which was otherwise close to impeccable throughout. The second movement eased off on the emotional intensity, but it was still generally slower than most would take it. Momentum was elegantly maintained, however, through the repeated note offbeat string accompaniments, allowing the woodwind soloists to linger without any danger of the music losing focus.

Das Lied von der Erde is another Haitink speciality. The soloists were Christianne Stotijn and Anthony Dean Griffey, who was standing in for an indisposed Robert Gambill. Griffey is an established name in the States, where he has sung Das Lied many times but is not a familiar face on the London stage. He looks disconcertingly like Bryn Terfel, and like Terfel he has a powerful tone (although tenor rather than baritone) and an uncanny ability to articulate the text over the sound of the full orchestra. The tenor is in at the deep end in the work’s long, intense first movement, a situation only exacerbated by Haitink’s steady tempi. Griffey coped admirably, sustaining the long, loud, high phrases over expansive orchestral textures without any apparent danger of attenuation or fatigue.

The clarity that Haitink drew from the orchestra in this first movement was staggering. His steady tempo made perfect sense, presenting Mahler’s contrapuntal textures in unprecedented clarity, but sustaining the focus and concentration so that the structure was always secure. The work offers the chance for soloistic exposure around the wind section, and special mention should be given to the bassoon, horn, oboe and flute, the latter coming close to stealing the show in the last movement. I am also happy to report that the LSO’s daring appointment of the recently graduated Philip Cobb to the principle trumpet chair has proved a good choice, the assured confidence and precision of his playing this evening acting as a valuable point of focus for the entire brass section.

Christianne Stotijn is a regular Haitink collaborator, and a close musical affinity was apparent throughout her songs. Her voice has an earthy tone (which can only be a good thing for this particular work), clear and focussed with a subtle and delicately applied vibrato. Der Abschied, the song that brings the cycle to an intense and poignant close, was performed with the ideal balance of emotion and restraint. Haitink’s structural foresight allowed the music both immediacy and inevitability, the singer and woodwind soloists given the freedom to put their personal farewells across without any loss of symphonic perspective. Overall, then, an incredible performance, and a testament to the acute Mahlerian sensibilities of conductor, soloists and orchestra alike.

Gavin Dixon

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast on 22 October.

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