Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mahler: Symphony No.3 - Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Haitink

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 3
Michelle DeYoung, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Women of the Chicago
Bernard Haitink
CSO Resound - CSO 901 701


Am I entitled to comment on this one? Not really. No matter how hard I've tried, the 3rd is still on the list of works with which I still have to develop a satisfactory acquaintance.
So I'll let Dave Hurwitz talk, hoping that his reserves will provide the sufficient motivation for you, more competent Mahler listeners, to give it a try. One reason I really hate critics for is that once you've gotten hold of a hard earned CD, you just stumble into a review telling you it wasn't actually worth bothering...

Classics Today Rating: 7/8
The Chicago Symphony under the leadership of Henry Fogel started the trend of releasing its own recordings, initially as a fundraising opportunity, so it was only a matter of time before the orchestra launched its own label more formally. While I certainly welcome the initiative, this first title represents a mixed success. On the surface, the orchestra is leading from strength: both it and Haitink have excellent Mahlerian credentials. But let's face it--the CSO already has one excellent Mahler 3 (Levine's; Solti's was dreadful), and so does Haitink (his first Concertgebouw recording; his Berlin remake was dreadful). Actually, if you throw in Haitink's live Amsterdam recordings and his Berlin video, this is his fifth Mahler Third, which, coming from a conductor often heard to moan about the excesses of the recording industry in this regard, seems little short of bizarre.

Unquestionably Haitink knows the work, and so does the Chicago Symphony, and the orchestra's legendary brass section certainly lives up to its collective reputation, particularly in the closing chorale of the finale. But this is a symphony that thrives on color, and here Haitink is at his weakest. His first recording featured an orchestra (the Concertgebouw) that at the time had such an individual timbral profile, and was so steeped in the Mahler tradition, that he couldn't help but take credit for the excellent results. That performance remains a favorite, if only because it has the most glowing, organ-like final chord ever captured. Here, in the first movement, Haitink misses those touches of color at lower dynamic levels from the percussion and the harps that help lend the work its special character.

There's also a certain staidness to the tempos, a lack of contrast in such places as the vulgar eruption of winds and brass before the first movement's recapitulation, and throughout the scherzo, that risks turning into dullness despite the excellent playing everywhere in evidence. Furthermore, the fifth movement simply lacks the picture-postcard brightness that Mahler builds into his scoring and that creates the atmosphere of brittle unreality that so brilliantly sets up the finale's serene opening (Bernstein I on Sony has never been equaled here). Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung's voice also has developed what comes very close to a wobble, and this makes her work in both the fourth and fifth movements less than ideal. The engineering is clear and vivid, but also a bit flat in perspective, with the brass at times overbearing (not that fans of these players, who are legion, will care).

In sum, this is a good if flawed performance, but more to the point, a redundant one. If you want Chicago in this music, seek out Levine (particularly the Japanese RCA reissue), which also has a very significant asset in Marilyn Horne in the vocal bits. If you want Haitink, Philips has recently reissued his first and best Concertgebouw recording, coupled with a fine Das Klagende Lied. And if you must have Haitink and Chicago together, then you may want to consider this, but only if the identity of the artists is far more important than the actual musical results.

--David Hurwitz

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