September 08, 2005


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Bernard Haitink conducting Orchestre National de France. Naïve. $16.99.

     If you are looking for a Mahler Fifth that glows, you will find it here.  Bernard Haitink is one of the great Mahler conductors, and perhaps the only one whose performances of the symphonies change significantly over time.  This one, recorded live in mid-2004, is stunningly lyrical and unusually relaxed: it runs nearly 80 minutes, which is quite a long time for this symphony.  That means the tempos must be slow, which they are, but it does not mean the performance drags, which it does not.  Instead, it has an almost Brucknerian feel to it, as Haitink emphasizes the long lines of each movement, the underlying structure that gives each one flow and prevents it from becoming episodic – as each movement and the whole symphony often do in the hands of a lesser conductor.

     Because Haitink takes plenty of time with the music, he can dwell lovingly on details that other conductors overlook in their emphasis on the jagged, edgy and harsh elements of this work.  Midway through the second movement, for instance, trumpet details are heard clearly and with telling effect, providing clear balance to the solo trumpet calls that began the first movement.  This is balance that is all too often lacking in performances of this symphony.

     Mahler did not so much write works of massed sound as chamber music for large orchestra.  A Mahler symphony certainly can make plenty of noise, but it is through clarity of detail and care of balancing instrumental solos and small groups that the music really builds its effects.  This is especially true in the Fifth, the first non-choral symphony of Mahler’s maturity.  It is large; but as it moves from intensity and seriousness to playful, rough good humor in the finale, it should never be sonically ponderous.

     Because Haitink understands this, the third movement, linchpin of the symphony and a trap for far too many conductors (and horn players), here flows beautifully, each episode naturally connected with what has gone before.  The fourth movement, quiet and lovely, gently swells and ebbs, exuding serenity.  And the fifth, for once, carries enough weight to balance the rest of the symphony and does not come across as a throwaway rondo.

     Haitink’s approach works least well in the first two movements of the symphony (Part I, as Mahler called them, the third movement being Part II and the fourth and fifth Part III).  Here the lyricism comes close to seeming out of place, especially in the near-frantic beginning of the second movement, which Haitink controls into smoothness.  Yet retrospectively, as the symphony goes on and Haitink pulls listeners further into it, the handling of the first two movements makes increasing sense.  It is an unconventional approach, not one that will please those seeking greater drama and less grandness; but it is a highly satisfying one that is well worth hearing – not just once, but again and again.

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