Mahler: Symphony No 1 / Bernard Haitink, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Haitink proves in recording after recording that he is at the pinnacle of current Mahler interpretation.
MAHLER Symphony No. 1, “Titan” • Bernard Haitink, cond; Chicago SO • CSO RESOUND 901 904 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 57:39) Live: Chicago 5/1–3/2008
This is the third installment in a series of Mahler symphony recordings under the direction of the Chicago Symphony’s principal conductor; it may be too much to hope that they will eventually comprise a complete set, but for the time being we can savor each new release. Haitink recorded this work most recently in 1994 in Berlin (for video), and there have been several changes in his interpretation since then (he’s shaved five minutes from the total timing of the earlier recording for a start); what hasn’t changed is the attention to detail and consummate musicianship on display.
It would be overly simplistic to suggest that the first movement is “expansive”; Haitink’s is a slowly evolving interpretation. The exposition isn’t the impetuous one of Zander (Haitink observes the exposition repeat) or (more egregiously) Gergiev, nor is it tentative; rather, it is one of increasing confidence and power. In the development, the horn fanfare is portentous rather than declarative; the end of this section is one of anticipation, which is heightened by the very gradual buildup to the eruption for full orchestra, which is anything but subdued. One is aware more than usual that the whole movement has been leading up to this moment.
The second movement was marked (in the Hamburg autograph of 1893) both scherzo and langsames Waltzertempo (“slow waltz tempo”), and Haitink has both markings in mind for this performance—its tempo is measured and just a bit clumsy, evoking “the village pub” (in the words of one contemporary critic), while the Trio is a more refined dance. Listeners expecting the music of “Under full sail,” with its connotations of vigor and pace, may be disappointed, but I think this is a perfectly valid alternative.
The third movement opens with a shock of sorts: missing is the sour bass solo, and in its place is the entire bass section, producing a less grotesque funeral procession (according to Michael Steinberg, as late as 1893 Mahler had this passage played by the basses plus the cellos). The pall of gloom hangs over the entire movement, unleavened even by the band and klezmer-style music; the overall effect is of muted formality. Haitink plays down the parody and injects a genuine feeling of melancholy, especially in the lovely “Wayfarer” quotation.
The Chicago percussion do themselves proud in the opening of the finale, producing an effective accompaniment for the superb brass “scream.” I usually find this effect to be either overblown or underwhelming, but here it is perfectly gauged, analogous to the onset of the storm in the Beethoven Sixth (and anticipating the finale of the Mahler Second). The later love theme is just as calming and welcome as the opening is jarring. Haitink produces a performance that captures Mahler’s quickly shifting moods with stylish grace and precision, capped by a coda that is splendidly triumphant. The sound production (in the hands once again of the estimable James Mallinson) projects a very effective sense of acoustic space (especially in the offstage fanfares of the first movement), with extremely transparent imaging and lows that ground the soundstage without becoming too prominent. In two-channel playback, the SACD adds presence and even more precise instrumental definition than the excellent stereo version (available on CD, CSO Resound 901 902); in short, this performance is custom-made for the kind of clarity one encounters here—in whatever version.
Haitink proves in recording after recording that he is at the pinnacle of current Mahler interpretation. In comparison to Gergiev’s recent First, with its wayward impetuosity—Gergiev 52: 39; Haitink 57:42—this is an interpretation that manages to sound even more convincingly fresh and innovative, doing full justice to Mahler’s audacious symphonic “Titan.”
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Catalog Number: CSOR 901 904
Label: CSO Resound
Composer: Gustav Mahler
Conductor: Bernard Haitink
Orchestra/Ensemble: Chicago Symphony Orchestra