Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.6 - Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Haitink

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 6
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink
CSO Resound CSOR901807



Appropriately enough, this recording arrived on July 7, Mahler’s birthday. My most recent encounter with Bernard Haitink’s Mahler Sixth wasn’t a particularly positive experience (26:4); this was a live recording from France in 2001 (issued in 2002), and though I found much to admire, the performance lacked the kind of urgency heard in the then recent performances conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and Benjamin Zander; more damaging in this listener’s estimation was Haitink’s uncharacteristic omission of the exposition repeat in the first movement. Every Mahlerite should be thankful to the CSO, therefore, for its decision to preserve Haitink’s most recent Mahler performances, first with the Third (31:2), and now with this outstanding Sixth.

Haitink’s opening tempo in the Allegro is measured, very similar to Zander and Rattle. Both the >ma non troppo and aber markig notations are the clue here: while a faster tempo is certainly appropriate to the energico indication, a case can be made for a more moderate and precise march (“sturdy” is Michael Steinberg’s translation of markig and that is appropriate here); think of it more as determinedly implacable, rather than brutally insistent. It should come as no surprise that the orchestra is superb, with excellent detail (thanks in part, no doubt, to the sound production). The “Alma” second theme is a ray of sunshine illuminating dark places, expressive of happiness rather than impetuosity - the difference isn’t so much one of tempo as of content.

The development section is expansive and very atmospheric, injecting a much darker sense of futility; the “music from far away” is therefore that much more effective, achieving a sense of time in suspension. The cowbells are evocative without being obtrusive, and the strings are ethereal in their sensitive interplay with the celesta; the exposed solos for horn and clarinet add more contrast to the airy strings. The return to the march theme returns us to the hurly-burly of daily life, not at a frenetic pace, but simply as more of the same. The same kind of darkness heard in the development infuses the recapitulation; the coda swaggers to its triumphant conclusion as a firm refutation to the negativity of the march.

Haitink’s first movement, at just shy of 25 minutes in duration, is slower than the timings noted at Mahler’s own performances, which lasted between 22 and 23 minutes. Gergiev’s is a frenzied and heavy march, just shy of 22 minutes. I maintain, though, that Haitink’s is the more effective performance, the extra time supplying the kind of contrast that heightens Mahler’s thematic layout; Gergiev’s performance is without nuance and becomes monolithic.

The Scherzo is next, and with performances as good as this one, the logic of the original order of the middle movements becomes practically irrefutable (for a thoughtful examination of the middle-movement sequence debacle, see La Grange’s comprehensive analysis in Volume 4 of his Mahler). This parody of the first movement is heavier in its emphasis but otherwise continues the sense of implacability. Mahler’s most rigorously composed symphony is given rigorous control, and Mahler’s brilliant orchestration is exposed by the sound production - it is detailed and has depth both in an acoustic sense and in low-end reproduction. Haitink employs modern seating for the strings, but there is little loss of clarity. One notable demonstration of this clarity is the dance-like transition after the Trio, with its dry-bones xylophone. There is a truely pathetic quality to the Trios: they may evoke childlike images, but they seem too fragile for this environment, so that the resumption of the main theme is that much more sinister - Haitink really underlines the heaviness with groaning, heaving cellos, basses, and tuba.

As Steinberg says, the Andante is indeed “balm” after the Scherzo’s “music of disintegration and suppressed violence.” Haitink’s performance fits that characterization: initially calm but (Mahler being Mahler) with strong undertones that eventually erupt into powerful (but not violent) emotion, eventually to reach the heights, accompanied by the cowbells. There is more exquisite playing from the orchestra, the very poignant oboe of Eugene Izotov being the standout.

Haitink’s finale is painted on a very broad canvas: at 34:00, his is a couple of minutes longer than Tilson Thomas and Zander (and Mahler). How that time is utilized is the key. The exposition is dark, almost primordial, with life crawling, scrabbling for any handhold. The striving in the music for some semblance of triumph is battered down by very convincing climaxes: these make the hammer blows less of an idiosyncratic effect and more like exclamation marks - Haitink’s treatment of dynamics is another strength of this performance. In the expansive development, the gloom gives way to reminiscence: pointillistic effects of celesta and harp are so clear; there is plenty of vitality in the upwardly striving music, and then the first hammer blow falls. The sound is deep and dull, almost felt rather than heard (Zander’s is a much more singular sound).

Haitink’s pacing is very effective and there is ample dramatic tension in the warring themes at the heart of the development. The second hammer blow is less conspicuous, in keeping with Mahler’s wish that each successive blow is diminished in sound, though this one is integrated into the percussion battery almost too effectively. The decaying themes in the recapitulation are marked by a very heavy harp and mournful brass, like birds of prey on a corpse. The reminiscent music (“from far away”) is incredibly poignant here, the cowbells barely audible. One last attempt at life: the section, all brass chorales and desperation is almost frenzied in this performance, with the leering march as counterpoint, until all striving ceases with the coda. There is no third hammer blow, but Mahler’s revision is realized through the thunderous timpani. The “epitaph” for brass is practically motionless, hovering near death’s door, until the final, decisive stroke, more deadly than any hammer.

Coming so soon after Gergiev’s disappointing recording (31:6), this Haitink performance makes for a salutary corrective. Where Gergiev is all momentum and pulse, Haitink applies the lessons of a lifetime devoted to conducting Mahler and produces a performance of depth, nuance, and insight. Though Haitink’s expansive conception rivals that of the Third in duration, there is never a sense of time weighing heavily - all is drama and contrast. For those (like me) who often think of Haitink as the “restrained, sober” Mahlerian, this Sixth should be instructive.

The sound on this release is all one could ask for: spacious but offering exemplary inner-voice detail; ample low-end reproduction but not of the boomy or boxy variety. Mahler’s extraordinary orchestration, particularly that of the finale, where various instrumental sonorities - tremolando strings, celesta, tuba - play against each other, is given every shade of color and individuality.

The Sixth has had an outstanding track record on SACD, beginning with the recording by Tilson Thomas and now including Zander on Telarc, Eschenbach in Philadelphia on Ondine, Fischer on Channel Classics, and Jansons on Amsterdam’s RCO Live label (I haven’t heard the SACD of Abbado’s excellent recording with the BPO on DG). If price is a concern, Fischer’s and Gergiev’s are single-disc recordings, though neither is a bargain; Zander’s is an outstanding deal at three-discs-for-the-price-of-one (I can’t recommend the Gergiev at any rate). I would hope, however, that considerations of price alone won’t deter anyone from obtaining this outstanding performance of one of Mahler’s most dramatic and complex symphonies.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

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