MAHLER Symphonies Nos 2 & 9

Nearly two decades apart, live Mahler symphonies from Haitink in Germany

Author: 
Rob Cowan
PH07040 MAHLER Symphony No 2 HaitinkMAHLER Symphony No 2, 'Resurrection'
900113 MAHLER Symphony No 9 HaitinkMAHLER Symphony No 9

MAHLER Symphony No 2, 'Resurrection'

  • Symphony No. 2, 'Resurrection'
  • Symphony No. 9

Bernard Haitink’s nobility as a Mahler interpreter benefits the Resurrection Symphony like no other, a fact attested by numerous recordings, of which this extraordinarily moving Dresden performance is the most recently released. As to the differences between this and its various predecessors (though Haitink’s steel-and-velvet 2008 Chicago recording post-dates it chronologically), the sound profiles of the various orchestras are significant factors. Two fine Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recordings (one of them emanating from Haitink’s Eurovision Christmas Matinee Mahler series) enjoy characteristic amplitude and space for dynamic growth; there’s a little-known version with the Netherlands Radio Choir and the Rotterdam Philharmonic (1990, and once available as a ‘pirate’ CD), more drily recorded and more overtly dramatic; and versions from Berlin (1993, typically sumptuous) and, as just mentioned, Chicago. This particular Haitink performance was given on the 50th anniversary of the Dresden bombing (February 13, 1995), just as the Rotterdam performance commemorated the 50th anniversary of the bombing of that city on May 14, 1940. Both lay claim to being Haitink’s finest, the Dresden option – which drew from those present
not the usual volleys of unwanted applause but awestruck silence – being a significant find. Tempo-wise, the two recordings with the fastest finales are the 1968 Concertgebouw one and the one from Chicago (both are around 34 minutes), whereas the Rotterdam version stretches to an epic 37’47”. The others, including this one, hover around the 36-minute mark, while, at 11’46”, the Dresden scherzo is the slowest of all. But tempo alone is hardly
of the essence. Intensity is more important and, as I’ve already implied, so are the very different orchestral canvases. In Dresden, the strings have a warmly cosseting quality, the winds are mellifluous, the brass powerful but cleanly focused, while the closely balanced timpani have great impact (especially for the work’s closing moments). The voices are well balanced and Haitink’s willingness to let the music breathe while never allowing it to sag (just listen to how the first movement gains momentum) benefits Mahler’s structural design. The Resurrection craves goal-oriented interpretation, the sort that from the very start keeps you primed for those humbling final pages, so that the sense of potential catharsis remains securely in place – which it certainly does here. A great recording, then, though someone should gain access to the Rotterdam performance and release that, too.

As to the Munich Ninth from last December, a prominent timpani thwack marks the crest of the finale’s climax, defiant in this case rather than tortured, and in keeping with a performance that marries a sense of self-willing with a spirit of resignation. Although not as swift, overall, as Haitink’s LPO concert performance from 1999, it is none the less a far cry from the tragic 1987 Christmas Matinee statement, where the finale is slower than this one by more than five minutes. And yet the Munich Adagio is deeply consoling, especially at the start, truly a hymn of praise, and the way Haitink negotiates the first movement’s troubled course displays an unflinching grasp of where and when the climaxes should hit hardest, most awesomely at 17’40” when the brass blare out the ‘faltering heartbeat’ motif (the Bavarian Radio Symphony’s brass section pressing hard for maximum impact) while the timpani respond with a fierce statement of their own prominent motif. Between the outer movements’ polar extremes Haitink manages vivid reportage of the Ländler’s ribald humour and the tempered panic of the ‘Rondo-Burleske’, the latter featuring a coda that fans the flames while keeping its powder dry. The full-bodied sound has plenty of presence, and I was relieved to note that, as with the Dresden Second, a lack of applause allows the effect of Mahler’s (and Haitink’s) magic to linger that much longer. This is unquestionably one of the great Ninths of recent years, a performance that deserves a place alongside the Eurovision Christmas Matinee Concertgebouw performance which, like other recordings in the same series (Symphonies No 1-5, 7, 9 and songs, on Philips 464 321-2), deserves a local release.

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