Mahler Complete Symphonies
This slimline rearrangement of Haitink's Mahler cycle comes little more than a year after Philips presented it complete with couplings in an extravagant 15-disc box (12/92). What we were offered then was not quite the integral unit implied by the packaging and last reviewed enthusiastically by RO (2/79). This time Philips have restored the original analogue recordings of the Fourth and Seventh and even give us the superseded 1962 version of No. 1 which might seem excessively zealous. If space is at a premium, the new set is undeniably attractive, though the multilingual illustrated booklet dispenses with texts and translations and several symphonies are awkwardly spread between discs. For the most logical layout (and only one split symphony) Kubelik wins hands down, but his interpretations are not universally admired—he does have a tendency to race. Solti and the Chicago Symphony, tireless, blatant, punchy and similarly accommodated on ten discs, offer perhaps the most formidable competition in the relevant price bracket.
It can I suppose be argued that Haitink's Mahler displays more temperament these days, albeit of a distinctive kind. It is music he now more obviously 'interprets', opting for a consistently darker tone and almost invariably slower speeds. Whether this makes his performances (either on disc or in the concert-hall) more Mahlerisch is a moot point. For a generation of record buyers it was these sane, lucid, sometimes (as it now seems) insufficiently demonstrative Concertgebouw readings that represented a way into music previously considered unacceptable in polite society. After, say, the tortuous gestural manipulations of the deconstructionist Sinopoli, Haitink's phrasing has an appealing natural simplicity, his rhythmic almost-squareness providing welcome reassurance. The preoccupation with conventional symphonic verities of form and structure does not preclude striking beauty of sound and the recordings have come up well in the remastering. There is some residual hiss.
Having discussed the merits of most of the individual symphonies as recently as December 1992, I will concentrate on the new additions or, rather, restorations. Apart from a tepid Eighth (no match for Solti's blistering account) Haitink's early No. 1, his first taping of a Mahler symphony, is usually reckoned the least satisfactory of his career. Not that it is without interest for the Concertgebouw's reedy woodwinds and vibrato-laden trumpets lend specific character and charm to what is otherwise a comparatively featureless reading. True, the third movement doesn't quite work: Haitink's attempts at 'Jewishness' are so self-conscious that the results sound rhythmically suspect, not quite together rather than convincingly ethnic. The real problem is the boxed-in sound, uncharacteristically rough-and-ready with none of the cool tonal lustre which characterized subsequent LPs from this source.
The Fourth receives a similarly straightforward account with a wonderfully hushed Poco adagio and few if any of the aggressive mannerisms which have marred more recent versions. The restraint can border on inflexibility at times. The first movement lacks a certain element of fantasy with everything so very accurate and together, and, while Elly Ameling makes a lovely sound in the finale, the orchestra's animal caricatures are not really vulgar enough, the sense of wonder and awe in the face of heaven rather muted at the close.
The Seventh is one symphony in which Haitink's second thoughts (9/84) failed to match up to the freshness and impact of his original LPs. Though inevitably lacking the gut-wrenching theatricality and hallucinatory colour of Bernstein—his CBS cycle is presented in arbitrary dollops as part of Sony Classical's Royal Edition while the DG remakes are gathered on 13 mid-price discs—this first Haitink reading has none of the staidness and rigidity that occasionally prompts doubts about his Mahlerian credentials. Now accommodated on a single CD, it emerges as a high point of the series, second only to the celebrated Ninth. The opening is deceptively cool and brooding; thereafter the interpretation is unexpectedly driven and intense (the second Nachtmusik unaffectionately brisk) even if Mahler's fantastical sonorities are left to fend for themselves rather than being thrust into the foreground. Only those who feel the nth degree of nightmarish 'exaggeration' to be vital to the expression of the whole need have any doubts. The finale is effectively held together but it should perhaps sound more hollow than this.
To sum up: if you must have the Mahler symphonies under a single conductor, Haitink is arguably the man to go for. His objectivity will not spoil you for alternative readings, and the overall standard is infinitely higher than that offered by at least one ongoing Mahler cycle to be found in the bargain racks. Nevertheless I would not want to miss out on Bernstein, unrelenting in his desire to communicate the essentials of these scores, taking his cue from Mahler's remark that ''the symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing''. Haitink is more circumspect, the music's vaunting ambition knowingly undersold.'