June 28, 2007


Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Bernard Haitink conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

      Mahler performances during the 1960s and 1970s tended to align themselves with one of two camps: Leonard Bernstein’s or Bernard Haitink’s. Bernstein was the great popularizer of Mahler, whose music had been advocated for decades by Bruno Walter in performances that seemed somewhat fussy and that never quite ignited widespread public enthusiasm. Then along came Bernstein, his heart flamboyantly on his sleeve, extracting every ounce of Romantic emotionalism from Mahler’s huge scores and imprinting every one of them with his, Bernstein’s, own personal stamp. Through concert performances and the first-ever recording of Mahler’s complete symphonies (excluding the 10th, which had not yet been put into performing condition), Bernstein made Mahler a hit and a canon of modern concertgoing.

      Haitink was always quieter, more old-school musicianly, more concerned with Mahler’s structural elements and less with personalizing the music, which has quite enough emotionalism in it already. Blessed with the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the absolute height of its prowess – only the Vienna Philharmonic was in its league, while Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic was never better than reasonably good – Haitink extracted what Mahler put into his symphonies without adding anything extraneous, genuinely interpreting the works without adding his, Haitink’s, own touches. Bernstein’s dynamic and hyper-dramatic approach had the impact of fireworks, but Haitink’s more thoughtful and carefully structured interpretations have, by and large, worn better through the decades.

      Now PentaTone has released, in four-channel sound on a superb SACD, a revelatory Haitink Mahler Fifth from December 1970. It is a must-have for Mahler collectors – so assured, so carefully paced, so aware of what is going on in this symphony and of how to bring it to listeners’ comprehension that it stands head and shoulders above practically anyone’s later recording. (And never mind Bernstein’s: through no fault of the conductor, the Fifth from his complete set has by far the worst sound in the cycle.) There are counterthemes in Mahler’s Fifth that listeners may never have heard before – but Haitink finds them, pulls them out (often from inner voices), balances them beautifully, and shows just where they fit in. There is chamber-music care in the softer sections of the generally dramatic Part I of this work (first two movements), and Haitink finds it all, with low brass as impressive as the trumpets (the Concertgebouw brass was simply the best in the world in this era) and timpani whose delicacy is as exceptional as their dynamism. The horn work in the perfectly paced Part II (third movement) is outstandingly high-spirited, and the rhythmic variations are glorious. And Part III (fourth and fifth movements) fits together exceptionally well in this performance: the famed fourth movement, in which Bernstein (practically alone among conductors) discovered substantial angst, here emerges filled with uplifting beauty; and the bouncy, even slightly vulgar finale comes across as a summation of what has gone before, not a trivialized add-on. The remarkable power of this performance comes through all the more clearly thanks to the absolutely top-notch multichannel reproduction (based on a technically impressive four-channel approach that never succeeded in the marketplace of its time). Analog-to-digital transfer is flawless, and the recording sounds exceptional on standard CD players and truly amazing in full SACD splendor. If Bernstein’s was Mahler you felt deeply, Haitink’s was Mahler that made you both feel and think – and, for that matter, still is: Haitink remains vital and exceptionally engaged in music, including Mahler’s, at the age of 78.

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