Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888) [57:39]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago, 1-3 May 2008.DSD
CSO-RESOUND CSOR 901 904 [57:39]

During the time that Bernard Haitink has been Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2006-2010) several impressive CDs of their concert performances have been issued on the orchestra’s own label. Only recently I gave a warm welcome to their latest release, coupling Strauss and Webern. Already there have been three fine discs of Mahler symphonies: the Second (review), the Third and the Sixth. As I’m a great admirer of Haitink and have been impressed with those other Mahler discs I was keen to hear the partnership at work on the First symphony.

I wonder if there are many more difficult things to bring off than the opening pages of this symphony? Mahler makes great demands on the players with his long, very quiet string chords, punctuated by fragments of bird calls and little fanfares played by woodwind and brass. When it’s done well the tension generated can be something special. On this occasion the playing is as excellent as you’d expect from this virtuoso orchestra, with some breathtaking quiet dynamics, but the first time I listened I thought that the music seemed to lack the degree of pregnant atmosphere that I wanted to hear. Further listening failed to dispel that impression so some comparative listening seemed in order.

I turned to two other recordings, both from live performances. One was Bernstein’s 1987 traversal for DG, made with the Concertgebouworkest in Amsterdam (review). The other was a performance, also with that orchestra, conducted by Haitink himself. This was recorded on Christmas Day, 1977 and it’s contained in a box of recordings of virtually all the Mahler symphonies taken from Christmas Day concerts given by Haitink and the Concertgebouworkest between 1977 and 1987. I don’t think that this set is available any more, which is a great shame because, as Tony Duggan identified, it contains some excellent performances and adds to one’s appreciation of Haitink as a Mahler conductor. Listening to both of these recordings confirmed to me that there should be more suspense and a greater sense of awakening than Haitink brings out in this latest performance – though the Chicago orchestra’s playing and the recorded sound have the edge over both these competitors.

A little later (3:39), Mahler introduces a melody from ‘Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld’, the second of his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Haitink and his players shape this easefully; the mood is relaxed and, to be honest, I think it’s just a little too relaxed, too smooth. Having said that, it’s important to recall that in a letter that Mahler wrote to the conductor, Franz Schalk, he instructed: “In the first movement the greatest delicacy throughout (except in the big climax.)” No one could accuse Haitink of not obtaining delicacy – and, indeed, great refinement - from the orchestra throughout this movement. Moving a little further into the movement, the transition back to the opening nature-sounds material (8:18-9:49) is very carefully and subtly done; but is it just a bit too careful? The lead up to the brass fanfares that presage the main climax (from 14:41) is good but I’ve heard more gripping accounts – in the 1987 Bernstein recording, for example – though Haitink delivers a lively end to the movement.

The opening material of the second movement sounds suitably rustic and sturdy, though back in 1977 Haitink invested the music – beneficially – with much more vigour. I like the mellow performance of the trio in this 2008 version.

The third movement brings something of a departure in that the eerie double bass melody at the start is played not by a solo instrument, as is traditional, but by all the basses, playing with mutes. I’ve never heard it done this way before – a soloist plays in Haitink’s 1977 account – but in the booklet Phillip Huscher avers that Mahler resorted to a solo player because it was beyond many players of his day to deliver the tune in unison. It’s not a big deal, I suppose, and if Mahler’s intention was that the whole section should play the theme then the expert Chicago players vindicate his wishes splendidly. But listeners conditioned to the traditional, solo approach may feel that the eerie sound to which we’ve all become accustomed has been compromised. The subsequent ironic interjections of the “oompah-band” have a bit more tang in the 1977 Haitink performance and, unsurprisingly, from Bernstein. However, the Chicago recording scores heavily when Mahler quotes again from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, introducing the beguiling theme from the final song to which he set the words “Auf der Strasse steht ein Lindenbaum”. In the symphony this is given to muted strings with harp accompaniment and the Chicago players play it gorgeously (5:49).

Haitink obtains a fiery start to the finale; the playing has great weight and power, if not the sheer electricity that Bernstein delivers in these pages. The wonderful, long-breathed melody in D flat major (from 3:29) is beautifully done. The playing has great refinement and Haitink ensures that there’s no gratuitous excess of emotion. When the opening tumult returns (7:49) it’s a thrilling moment and one for which Haitink has prepared expertly. Subsequently, in the passages where Mahler relaxes, Haitink directs the music with patience and care. In the final pages he achieves grandeur without any hint of vulgarity.

This is a performance of Mahler’s First that is the product of long experience and deep understanding. As will be obvious from the foregoing, I do have some reservations; at times the performance lacks the animal excitement that Mahler, the iconoclastic innovator, surely intended. On the other hand, Haitink avoids any excess or vulgarity, and that’s to be welcomed. This is not the only way to play this symphony – the 1977 vintage of Haitink has much to commend it - but it’s a valid approach that is never less than thoroughly musical. And it’s superbly played and recorded. I should mention in passing that I listened in conventional CD format; I would imagine that listeners with SACD capability will have an even better sonic experience.

While this might not be my first choice recording of this symphony it’s still one that I’m very glad to have in my collection.

John Quinn

A superbly played performance of Mahler’s First that is the product of long experience and deep understanding