Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Prom 5: LSO/Haitink - Mahler, 20 July 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Greatness, by definition, manifests itself rarely, yet I find myself in the curious position of asking whether I have really heard two great performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony this year. Perhaps distance, temporal and critical, will disenchant, but I suspect not. Just six months after Daniele Gatti’s shattering account with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra came a very different, yet at least as ‘great’ performance from the London Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Haitink. What a relief, moreover, it is to credit the LSO, showing that a truly dreadful – ‘extraordinary’ in more than one sense – rendition of the very same work, little more than a year ago, had nothing to do with the orchestra itself and everything to do with uncomprehending direction from Valery Gergiev. Indeed, in terms of orchestral execution, the present performance could not fail to consign the RPO, on good form though it was, to the relative shade.

The first movement opened slowly, and continued that way, more world-weary than one might perhaps have expected, yet from the outset radiantly beautiful. An inexorable onward tread - I do not think I have ever heard Mahler’s harp sound so ominous – recalled the Schubert of Winterreise. This in turn reminded me of a recent observation from Michael Tilson Thomas, that ‘Mahler pursues Schubert’s goals with Wagner’s technique’. Sure enough, virtuoso brass brought out echoes of Götterdämmerung and the timpani recalled the indelible impression Fafner clearly made upon Mahler. For, as with Wagner, the Mahlerian and especially late-Mahlerian dialectic between beauty and ugliness suggests, as did this performance, that the latter might enhance rather than detract from the former. Haitink did not exaggerate in his evocation of the dark side of the orchestral moon, yet he knew precisely where to highlight not only the discordant but also the shocking in timbre. During moments of apparent calm – anything but, in retrospect – we appeared to stare straight into the abyss. Divert one’s eyes or ears though one might wish, so compelling was this performance that such was not an option. The closing horn calls of consolation – but are they? – resounded as if from the dawn of German Romanticism, yet with a knowledge that even relative innocence could no longer pertain. Gareth Davies’s flute solo quite rightly suggested something more fragmentary, modernistic, whilst other attempts at completion, not least that of leader Gordan Nikolitch, simply could not square the circle. This despite, or even partly on account of, the latter’s sweetness of tone.

The rusticity with which the next movement opened cast another backward glance to the world of Der Freischütz, yet again acknowledged that such a world could no longer be. For all the buoyancy of Mahler’s Ländler rhythms, there was something hollowed out to their expression. The composer’s ghostly counterpoint attempted to fill the gap, yet necessarily fell short, despite a busy quality that recalled the Fifth Symphony in particular. Such failure was not so stark as one might hear in a reading from Boulez, yet it nevertheless remained clear. The oases of ‘calm’ once again struck terror into one’s heart; clear-eyed in their depiction, there was no need for shrieking shock tactics. And when the marionettes came out to play, they terrified too.

Such play was, however, a mere presentiment for the Totentanz of the Rondo-Burleske. Again, Haitink’s absolute rhythmic surety provided a sure foundation for the horrors to come. The conductor proved equally adept at reminding one not only of the connections with the previous movements, but also with the way Mahler now pushes further whatever had already seemed extreme. Thus sepulchral brass once again evoked Wagnerian twilight. We also heard echoes turned bad of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies’ counterpoint: Die Meistersinger without Gemeinschaft, the twentieth-century nightmare. Just when all might have turned too sour, there was required a vision of what might be – or what might have been. Yet even that would soon be cruelly distorted, all the more cruelly for retaining so much of its initial fleeting beauty. Those vistas, physical and metaphysical, of whose evocation Mahler is so supreme a master, come no more ravishingly spell-binding than in this turn from A minor to D major. However, magical harp glissandi that needed to be heard to be believed cautioned one to remain equivocal: the view is agonising in both its proximity and its distance. And so it was that the marionettes of death must return, fairly mocking us in their exultant triumph, cosmic Norn chatter turned acidic.

Yet, if such mockery remains chatter, we can retain hope, vindicated by the dawn – or should it be twilight? – of the Adagio. This was a warm account, the LSO’s strings beguiling both in their vibrato and their occasional use of portamento. One recalled the final movement of the Third Symphony, albeit whilst recognising that much has changed since then, as Mahler’s ghostly interruptions reminded us. Counterpoint was now reconciled with harmony, as if the movement were a giant Bach chorale prelude. Perhaps, in some senses, it is. Although there would be instances after Mahler when an orchestral string section could once again sing together, perhaps even occasional instances without irony, one nevertheless felt that here was the end of a line. Haitink imparted, crucially, both a sense of loss and a sense of resolve. Debating whether this movement, or indeed the symphony, is ‘about’ life or death misses the point; how can one consider the one without the other? Bach knew that – and so should we. Thus, we arrived somewhere, even if it were uncertain where; progressive tonality can have that effect. This was a destination and a new beginning, though one could never forget what had happened before; true reconciliation is not amnesia. In both work and performance, something had subsided, yet some possibility had opened up before our ears.