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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 3 (1893/96) [101.28]
Gerhild Romberger (contralto)
Augsburger Domsingknaben,
Frauenchor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 15/17 June 2016 Philharmonie, Munich
German texts included. No English translations.
BR KLASSIK 900149 [35.49 + 65.39]

I approached this new recording of Mahler’s Third with some caution. On the one hand Bernard Haitink is a conductor, who I’ve admired greatly for decades; he was one of the conductors through whom I first got to know the symphonies of Mahler – and Bruckner – getting on for fifty years ago. On the other hand I remember a performance of this very symphony that he gave at the 2016 BBC Proms with the LSO. That concert, on 29 July 2016, was given just a few weeks after the performances in Munich, from which this recording is taken. My Seen and Heard colleague, Colin Clarke, was impressed (review) but I’m afraid that, watching the subsequent TV broadcast, I was disappointed, despite the excellence of the LSO’s playing. Indeed, the vast incident-packed first movement seemed strangely earth-bound and I gave up after that, even though I still retain the programme, unwatched, on my video recorder. Perhaps my impression was coloured by the sight of Haitink, who often appeared to be beating time dutifully rather than energising his players.

I think your reaction to Haitink’s account of the huge first movement will depend on how you view the piece. There’s a lot going for this performance. For a start the playing of the BRSO is superb in every department and the excellent recording does their playing justice: we can hear lots of vivid detail and the weight and heft of the performance really registers. But therein may lie a problem. To my ears this is a performance that focuses on weight and heft, starting with the darkly dramatic opening. The potent sound of the phalanx of horns really grabs the listener’s attention and in the opening few minutes – and at other times in the movement – the music sounds properly primeval: this is ‘big stuff’ and you really feel the forces of nature stirring. The important trombone solos (the first occurring at 7:40) are properly imposing. That’s all fine, but elsewhere, despite the admirably deft playing, I feel that the more delicate stretches, such as the passage beginning at 6:13, are not as light and fantastic as I’d like to hear them. Much later on in the movement (from 20:40) there’s a section for solo horn and violin over pizzicato strings. The playing is expert but I don’t hear the element of fantasy that there ought to be in the music.

It’s not just these delicate, lyrical sections that seem a bit earthbound. From around 13:00 to 15:00 Mahler has a confident, big march; it’s a really colourful parade. In this performance the march is purposeful and strong, but should there not also be a feeling of hedonism? This one of several passages that lack the swagger and panache - the element of risk-taking - that Leonard Bernstein so memorably provides in his 1961 NYPO recording and which James Levine emulates in his 1975 account with the Chicago Symphony (BMG/RCA). These conductors give you a sense of living on the edge. Haitink, for all the virtues of his performance – and there are many – doesn’t let go in the same way. Though timings don’t always tell the whole story, I think it’s instructive that Haitink takes 35:49 over the first movement whereas Bernstein clocks in at 33:16 and Levine at 32:47. Klaus Tennstedt, in a memorably intense live reading takes 32:15. A 2006 live Haitink recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO Resound CSOR 901 701) is interpretatively pretty consistent with the new BRSO reading; there the first movement plays for 35:10. We don’t seem to have reviewed that performance; it is rather consistent with the Bavarian rendition. On both occasions Haitink had a world class orchestra at his disposal, and the CSO Resound recording has even more body and impact than the excellent B R Klassik recording.

Though Haitink has never been the most flamboyant Mahler conductor, it’s interesting to find that, earlier in his career, he did take a rather different and more dynamic view of this movement. During his long period at the helm of the Concertgebouw Orchestra he would often play Mahler symphonies at their annual Christmas Day concerts. Philips issued a box of live recordings from these concerts as a near-complete symphony cycle, which the late Tony Duggan rightly praised. Sadly that box is long deleted, but it would be wonderful to have it reissued, for it contains some fine performances. One such is the Third in a 1983 performance. There the first movement lasts for 32:38 and it has the thrust and dynamism that I find lacking in this 2016 traversal.

Though I have reservations about the first movement I’m much happier with the remainder of the performance. The second movement is very nicely shaped by Haitink – and ideally paced. The deftness and lightness of the orchestral playing is admirable. The third movement is also a success. Here the opening music is sharply pointed and articulated and the BRSO bring out the tang in the music very well. Haitink prepares the way for the first posthorn episode superbly and the posthorn section itself (from 5:55) is very well done. It’s good that the player, Martin Angerer, is named for in each of these passages he plays very well indeed, his sound nicely distanced. (In Haitink’s Chicago recording the posthorn is even more magically distanced.) Haitink creates the mood of nostalgia really well in these posthorn episodes. Either side of these sections the conductor and engineers work in alliance to bring out many details of Mahler’s piquant scoring, and the movement is brought to a strong conclusion.

Haitink gets the dark mystery of the fourth movement just right. He has a very good soloist in Gerhild Romberger, though Michelle DeYoung, who sings for him in Chicago, seems marginally more expressive. The orchestral material is demandingly exposed and the BRSO plays with exemplary control and with an equally fine appreciation of the ambience that Mahler is seeking to create. There are good choral contributions in the buoyant fifth movement – the boys have real bite in their tone.

It’s in a movement like the great concluding adagio that the patience and ability to take a long view, which one associates with Bernard Haitink, really pays dividends. Just as in his Chicago recording, his view of the movement is served by a wonderful orchestra. Here the BRSO strings are just superb, their playing sensitive and refined. Later in the movement, as it builds towards the epic conclusion, it’s the brass, who take centre stage and the BRSO brass section is just as distinguished as the string choir had been earlier. Haitink leads a very eloquent, unforced performance of the movement, one which is characterised above all by dignity. He and his players build the music incrementally until the last few minutes, which are glowing and noble.

Whilst I can’t quite overcome my reservations about Haitink’s way with the first movement, either here or in the Chicago recording I readily acknowledge that on its own terms it’s an interpretation of the movement that commands respect, especially since this BRSO performance is technically very fine. The remainder of the symphony is marvellously done. If you already have the CSO Resound recording I think you can rest content; the differences between the two are not significant. This B R Klassik release, expertly engineered and wonderfully played, offers a distinguished reading of Mahler’s Third. Haitink’s performance may not shake the rafters but it is clearly the product of decades of accumulated Mahlerian wisdom.

John Quinn

Previous review (Recording of the Month): Michael Cookson



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