Mahler Symphony No. 9
It’s now over four decades since Bernard Haitink first recorded Mahler’s most challenging Symphony, with the Concertgebouw. He shows no sign of weakening his grip on the seemingly effortless long-term vision which has always been a hallmark of his masterly conducting. There are no surprises here other than in the Finale: an abrupt cessation of Mahler’s last, whispered benediction, where Haitink for once doesn’t get perceptibly slower as the score suggests he can. But the pacing of the first movement’s peaks and troughs remains a wonder and the cultured, humane adaptability of the Bavarian Radio Symphony strings provides a special benchmark of quality. In the outer movements the biggest climaxes are never in doubt, and are dazzlingly sustained. In the scherzo and Rondo-Burlesque, grotesquerie and savagery take a back seat to clear textures. The tenderness which flourishes unexpectedly at the heart of the hurly-burly – looking backwards in the second movement to the main theme of the first, forward in the Rondo-Burlesque to the domain of the finale’s death-hymn – is given a special place. Solo work is superb throughout, especially so from the first horn, and a live recording which captures barely a shuffle from the audience gives the brass ensemble integrated presence without over-dominance. All that’s missing is the hallucinatory edge of a performance like Claudio Abbado’s with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra – DVD only, but a palpable front-runner and, rightfully, a BBC Music Magazine Award winner.