Mahler: The Symphonies

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COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: The Symphonies
PERFORMER: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Bernard Haitink; Jessye Norman, Hermann Prey, John Shirley-Quirk, Werner Hollweg, Heather Harper, Norma Procter, Elly Ameling
CATALOGUE NO: 434 053-2 ADD (15 discs)
If ever a conductor deserved the recorded luxury of several long, hard looks at the Mahler symphonies, it has to be Haitink. Now embarked on a third lap with the Berlin Philharmonic, he even had the chance for a few second thoughts during his years with the Concertgebouw; as a result, this new re-packaging veers away at key points from the famous consistency of the late 1960s/early 1970s cycle. Mark Two of the Seventh Symphony (1982) shows the more leisurely direction in which he’s been heading. His handling of the final processional – glaring day after subtle night – is a timely reminder that there really isn’t a problem if you let the movement unfold in broad, resplendent fashion. The only flaw, given Philips engineers’ recent ease with their Amsterdam venue, is that the middle movements always seem in danger of falling into the beautiful chasm of the Concertgebouw Hall.

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Earlier solutions to the environment veered to the opposite extreme. It’s a miracle how, time and again, Concertgebouw strings defy boxy close-quartering and keep their special radiance without the proper acoustic to support it. And Haitink’s slow movements – both supple and long of line – remain, after all this time, second to none. I’m thinking of his very human way with the ‘God is Love’ finale of the Third, the ideally-paced Adagietto of the Fifth (his recent Berlin licence is almost too indulgent to the players), or the easy blending of what other conductors tend to see as ‘episodes’ within the serene seamlessness of the Sixth’s Andante. It all sounds even lovelier, of course, in proper perspective: try the relaxed child’s sleigh-bell journey in the first movement of the Fourth, just before the rumbustious coda (another second shot, 1984) for the real Concertgebouw glow, though I have to confess that the anguished cries of pain between innocent visions in this slow movement don’t strike terror to the heart as they should. That can be a fault: the avoidance of sharp, searing detail, the painful extremes of the Mahlerian temperament sometimes sacrificed to the longer vision. But it also makes for good companionship on repeated listening. I think I’ve learnt a great deal from Haitink, over the years, about the workings of those terrific and exhausting tours de force – the crazy march-finale of the Sixth and the lurid Rondo-Burleske of the Ninth – without ever being quite knocked out by them; the quaver/semiquaver torrents are too ruthlessly clear to admit to frenzy, though in both cases you can reach the end – and, in the case of the Ninth, move composedly on to the great heights of the Adagio without undue exhaustion. It is much the same with the choral finales of the Second (Resurrection) and Eighth Symphonies. No-one moves more firmly of purpose than Haitink to these grand optimisms, even if the fervour of his chorus is muzzled by the recessed recording.

Soloists for the Eighth were chosen with care, and Elly Ameling’s smiling presence in the Resurrection is a reminder that she made a more childlike contribution to the Fourth Symphony in Haitink’s first recording than Roberta Alexander (good in the last verse) for the remake.

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It was an inspired idea to set the Jessye Norman/John Shirley-Quirk Des Knaben Wunderhorn as preface to the three symphonies which plunder its riches, but the inclusion of Das klagende Lied (in its two-movement version) is bound to make us question all the more why Das Lied von der Erde – a symphony in all but name – wasn’t added. Small quibbles, even so, over a shining, level-headed treasury. David Nice