Mahler: Symphony No 2 / Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Haitink

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The most recent release from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Resound label is an impressive recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Based on performances given in late November 2008, this recording preserves the memorable readings CSO principal conductor Bernard Haitink gave this work last year. While comparisons can be awkward, the previous point of reference for CSO audiences was the series of performances by Michael Tilson Thomas in early 2006. At that time Tilson Thomas conducted the work dynamically, but some elements did not emerge readily as, for example, the portamento in the strings in the second movement. Haitink’s approach may be characterized as attentive to the details of the score, and his mastery of those various elements has resulted in an intensely moving interpretation.
While it is possible to distinguish the first three instrumental movements from the last two vocal ones, Haitink fused the five movements into a convincing whole in the concerts he gave in Fall 2008. It may be difficult, at times, to perceive such cohesiveness in a recording, since listeners can stop and start at various points. Nevertheless, the disc captures the style Haitink achieved in live concerts in a fine recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony.
In this recording, it is possible to hear the attention to detail which Haitink brought to those live performances. Such integrity allowed the score to play as intended by the composer, an intention implicit in the various revisions Mahler made after the premiere of the Second in 1894 - particularly the refinements he published in the 1906 edition of the score. From the start Haitink made the work resonate, with the tremolo with which the first movement opens as intense as a climactic moment in an opera. The opening tempo is engaging, and Haitink is able to propel the movement forward by drawing from the orchestra nicely etched articulations at cadences and other structurally important places, as indicated in the score. He broadens the tempo when necessary and, when marked in the score, allows various passages to push forward. The swells of sound Mahler orchestrated have a clear shape, as the sonorities build to fullness and decay naturally. While some of this ambience may be the result of the acoustics of the hall, the tight ensemble of the CSO must be acknowledged as the source of the solid and mature sound in this masterful performance. With the strings at the core, the orchestra offers equally strong sonorities from the woodwinds and brass. At the same time, the percussion deserves recognition for the effective use of the timpani, along with support from the non-tuned instruments. With its immediate and upfront sound in this recording, the softer passages are never lost in the mix; however the tutti passages at the end of the first section of the first movement, to cite one example, can be overwhelming. The passages which conclude the movement reveal an appropriate pacing, with the final gesture bringing the movement to a resounding conclusion.
While some labels issue Mahler’s Second Symphony on a single disc, CSO Resound offers it on two, with the one devoted to the first movement, the piece Mahler once entitled “Todtenfeier,” in the manner of a tone poem Mahler once intended for the piece. The remaining four movements are found on the second of the two CDs. This division also assists in adhering to the marking Mahler put in the score to allow some time before proceeding with the second movement. In the medium of a sound recording, this physical separation supports that kind of stage direction. Likewise, the placement of the second through fifth movements on the second disc helps to prevent any kind of artificial separation of the instrumental movements from the vocal ones.
In contrast to the dramatic effect Haitink brings out in the first movement, the second conveys a delicacy implicit in the score. This emerges not only in the softer, more restrained playing, but in the clean articulations of the accompanying figures. In a similar way, the woodwinds are not just soft, as marked in the score, but seem sotto voce in approach, with a reedy blend prominent in the second section of the movement. With the return of the first area, Haitink’s hesitant gestures helped to distort the expected melodic pattern before the variation proceeds. Even within the delicate shadings of the movement, full sounds of the central section never seemed to be a compromise. Rather, the plaintive effect fits into the sometimes elegiac character of the movement.
The Scherzo in Haitink’s hands is relatively brisk, and the tempos convey a sense of the instrumental idiom of the movement. While the music from Mahler’s Wunderhorn setting Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (“St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish”) is recognizable, Haitink allows the other ideas in the movement to emerge easily from that vocal model. Those brisk tempos set up the middle section of the movement, where the brass fanfare introduces music by Mahler’s deceased colleague Hans Rott, specifically the opening of the Scherzo from the Rott’s Symphony in E. When the thematic content from both Rott’s Scherzo and Mahler’s Wunderhorn song combine near the end of the movement, Haitink sustains the tension of the orchestral outburst sufficiently to allow the remainder of the movement to dissipate naturally.
The quieter sounds and thinner textures at the end of the Scherzo fit nicely into the chamber-music-like sonorities at the beginning of Urlicht, the fourth movement. In this movement Christianne Stotijn uses her full mezzo sound to color the text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Her voice blends well with the middle-string sounds, yet is never obscured within the orchestral textures. The calm and paced song gives way, in turn, to the choral Finale, and in this movement Haitink delivers a compelling reading of Mahler’s cantata-like structure which centers on the famous “ Auferstehungs” Ode of Klopstock.
The contrasts found in the score are realized nicely in this recording, with the thunderous opening of the movement serving as a foil for the relatively quiet sounds from the off-stage brass which follow and, later, the development of the opening theme on solo instruments. Haitink restrains the horns in the first part of the movement, with the fanfares from that section quite rich in color, but never as prominent as they are later in the movement. Likewise, the low brass are wonderfully clear and resonant, without overbalancing the ensemble - not only in the reprise of the “O Roschen rot” idea from Urlicht, but also later, Mahler develops motifs around the interval of the tritone. Ultimately, the repose which accompanies the instrumental presentation of the Aufterstehungs-Motif from the third act of Wagner’s Siegfried (the passage in which the character Brünnhilde sings "Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich" -- "I was eternal, I am eternal") serves as a further foil for the various off-stage and solo instruments in the section before the a capella chorus enters.
At this point, it is difficult to recall a more satisfying interpretation of the choral entrance with the words “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n, wirst du, mein Staub” (“Arise, yes, arise, my dust”), with the vocal textures full and rich. Miah Persson’s soprano solo plays off the choral timbre with ease and assurance as her passages emerge clearly. When Persson interacts with Stotijn in the duet which follows, both women’s voices blend well in conveying not only the meaning of the text but also the emotional pitch of the music. This sets the tone for the choral sections which follow. The full sounds of the male voices are impressive for the textured sonorities they create. Haitink is good to allow the passage “Bereite dich” to resonate, and then to linger on the passages that follow. In such a way, the text and music build to a fitting and appropriate conclusion, which climaxes on the phrase “Sterben werd’ ich um zu leben” (“I perish in order to live”) before the reprise of the text “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n” (“Arise, yes arise”). Here the combined sounds of the chorus, soloists, and orchestra have free rein in bringing this monumental work to its conclusion, as Mahler creates a vocal tableau as the culmination of his Second Symphony.
The recording does justice to the performances on which it is based, and also points to the affinity between Haitink and the CSO when it comes to interpreting Mahler’s music. This recording is a worthy addition to the already fine set of recordings from these performers, which include the two symphonies which frame this one, the First and Third, as well as Haitink’s incisive recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Whether these will result in a cycle is less important than the fine interpretations each recording contributes to the legacy of recordings for these works. With this newly issued disc, Haitink and the CSO offer a powerful reading of this important score. It stands apart from others not only for the interpretation Haitink offers but also for the execution of the score by one of the finest orchestras in the world. Available both on CD on a two-disc set and also as a download, this recording bears careful listening for the detailed reading it brings to Mahler’s familiar score.

-- James L Zychowicz, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CSOR 901 914

  • UPC: 810449019149

  • Label: CSO Resound

  • Composer: Gustav Mahler

  • Conductor: Bernard Haitink

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Christianne Stotijn, Miah Persson