Mahler: Symphony No. 1

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Chicago SO/Bernard Haitink


Bernard Haitink’s latest, Chicago interpretation of Mahler One moves with measured, sophisticated tread through the first three movements’ respective meadows, village green and dark wood.

There’s dynamic licence for the way in which the Wayfarer’s song about his morning nature-walk begins rather sleepily in its orchestral version, rising steadily to vigour and carefully articulated roars from the ever-impressive Chicago horns. The scherzo’s country dance could be earthier, but there’s subtle detail and unusually careful balances between the romps.

Haitink has his own way of creating smoky chiaroscuro for the third-movement huntsman’s funeral, opting (as we’re now told Mahler would have wished) for smooth double bass ensemble rather than an ungainly solo, thereby avoiding the element of parody which must have astonished audiences at early performances.

After all this refinement – rather too much of it if you’re used to the vocal rustics of Kubelík or the punch of Bernstein – the finale here comes as a surprise. Its opening ‘cry of a wounded heart’ takes advantage of live performance to make its listeners jump, with the strings unleashing clearly-defined fork lightning.


The emotion recollected in tranquillity at the movement’s heart is movingly done, the two brass cornerstones of impending victory gloriously full-throated, the final ‘triumphal’ focused to the last. It all sounds effortlessly handsome, much as you’d wish from the best seat in Chicago’s Symphony Center. David Nice