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Haitink early v1 1PS51

Bernard Haitink (conductor)
The Early Years - Volume 1
Alphonse DIEPENBROCK (1862-1921)
Elektra, Symphonic Suite [13:24]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.1 in D Major [52:02]
Concertgebouw Orchestra
rec. live, broadcast 9 November 1958 (Diepenbrock), studio 1962 (Mahler)
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BEULAH IPS51 [65:26]

It is a bold statement by Beulah to start this series of the early recordings of Bernard Haitink with this particular coupling. Diepenbrock is hardly a household name and what commentary there is on him seems to damn him with faint praise. Similarly, what was Haitink’s first recording of a Mahler symphony (I believe) has tended to be dismissed as a rare misfire by this conductor in this music. Beulah have made something of a specialism of confounding expectations and I, for one, have learnt that if Beulah think something is worth releasing there is more to the recording than first impressions suggest.

Performance matters aside, the Mahler sounds glorious. If, like me, you are a sucker for the classic LP sound, you will adore this. There is a boldness to the sound picture that seems to have fallen somewhat out of favour. Beulah have worked on this like master restorers bringing out the depth and colour in a Renaissance masterpiece. Have a listen to the slow movement of the Mahler and marvel at the layers and layers of rich detailed sound on offer. Are those klezmer trumpets really those of the mighty Concertgebouw? I found myself tracking the bassoon line in this movement – such characterful woody playing so well caught by the engineers.

I compared this Beulah version with the release on Phillips Concert Classics. The sound on the latter sounded rather weedy and I found myself wondering if that was one of the reasons for the generally low opinion of this recording. What Beulah have done best is to open out the sound. Try the gentle Fahrenden Gesellen passage in the middle of the movement and what I hear is a more restricted sound image on Phillips. The sound is still forward but it lacks perspective and the front of the sonic picture tends to dominate in a somewhat artificial way. By opening up the picture somewhat, Beulah let the manifold elements of Mahler’s orchestration be heard. More importantly, this fuller sonic image sounds more characteristically like a Haitink performance- little flash but lots and lots of good musical sense.

Much the same points could be made about the other movements. The opening of the finale, for example, which sounds a bit blowsy on the Phillips incarnation is thrilling on Beulah with great big fat trombones and visceral strings. More than anything else the bass register is clarified enormously from a shapeless rumble to proper music detail. As I have already indicated this isn’t a matter of detail for detail’s sake but part of a wider aesthetic. Now we have this performance in sound which matches the conductor’s conception of the work.

Interpretatively, it was this slow movement that was singled out for most criticism. In the Jewish influenced episodes, Haitink apparently sounded unidiomatic. True, this isn’t the wildest kneesup on record but is that the only way to approach this music? One thing Haitink gets right from the start is a suitably scratchy, whining, malnourished double bass solo.

Lee Denham, in his recent formidable and comprehensive survey of this symphony on record for MusicWeb, noted that the original sound was somewhat light in the bass. I agree but Beulah have gone a long way towards correcting this. Incidentally, if you haven’t yet caught up with Lee’s survey do so at once. It is superb and I can’t wait for the next instalment.

The Diepenbrock originates from a radio broadcast so can’t compete sonically with the studio recording lavished on the Mahler. This piece makes a good and original companion piece to the Mahler and is a good deal more interesting piece to listen to than it would seem from reading about it. Diepenbrock was an amateur composer who earned his corn as a teacher of classics and this Elektra suite was constructed from music written for the original Greek play. He was a friend of Strauss and Mahler amongst others and it shows in his writing. Whilst some of the joins are clearly audible in these pieces, they are full of interesting ideas, not something that can always be said of some more obviously professional compositions. Haitink does him the service of preparing a fully committed performance with the same care as he lavishes on the Mahler. A good performance helps any composition and I found this recording encouraged me to look more kindly on Diepenbrock than I had in the past when he was largely a name that cropped up in biographies of others.

I doubt many will acquire this album on the basis of Diepenbrock but I do think this incarnation of Haitink’s Mahler 1 adds something to our understanding of the great Dutch conductor’s early career as well as being an extremely fine listen.

David McDade

Previous review: Brian Wilson

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