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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Concert Review: A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning

Bernard Haitink conducts Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The great Bernard Haitink at the controls of the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
At 87 years old, Bernard Haitink is a dean among active conductors still appearing on the podiums of the world's great concert halls. He still works regularly with the London Symphony Orchestra and he visits the New York Philharmonic in David Geffen Hall every other year. On Tuesday night, Mr. Haitink led the fourth and final performance this season of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9. As the audience sat, rapt for almost an hour and a half, one wondered if this was the Dutch conductor's last New York performance of this touchstone work.

The Ninth is Mahler's last completed symphony, written as part of a furious, creative outburst that followed hard on a series of personal and professional disasters in the composer's life. Its creation came following the death of Mahler's daughter, his ejection from the Vienna Court Opera and his subsequent move to New York, where he spent two seasons leading the Metropolitan Opera before changing jobs and becoming principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic. This turbulent period is also when the composer discovered that he was suffering from a defect in the ventricle of his heart, a defect that ultimately led to the infection which killed him at the age of 50.

In the face of these events, Mahler ignored the advice of his doctor and threw himself into his work, writing Das Lied von der Erde (originally planned as a ninth symphony--but Mahler changed the title), the Ninth and starting work on the equally ambitious Tenth. Although it was not planned as a valediction, the Ninth effectively serves as a perfect summation of his career. Its four movements are shot through with nostalgic quotes from the preceding symphonies. Throughout, the work is suffused with a sense of calm resignation and ultimately, acceptance in the face of death.

Mr. Haitink took the opening Andante comodo at a comfortable jog, playing the distinctive opening rhythm a little faster than how it is usually heard. As the strings entered and the muted horns sighed out the falling interval that is this movement’s first subject, they were answered by a gentle, misty-eyed figure in the violins. The themes developed, repeated and recapitulated, with comments from the winds and bleating horns, and a pounding interval in the timpani that was the flowed and surged into great climaxes of brass , percussion and cymbals, roiling waves of sound that poured out the composer’s innermost torments.

The second movement is marked In the tempo of a ländler and plays as a sort of dance for slow and clumsy peasants. Under Mr. Haitink, this was at once nostalgic and strange, as if the celebration was happening in a hospital ward. Mahler pits querulous double reeds (oboe and bassoon) against a rustic, sawing sound in the cellos and basses that reminds one of a hurdy-gurdy. The players shifted into the trio section with a return of the "falling" rhythm of the first movement which yielded to comments from violins, oboe and even timpani.

The Rondo-Burleske is third, an extraordinary movement that would have ended any other symphony. Here it had something of the apocalyptic, as Mr. Haitink urged the players forward in an intense and animated performance. Chivvying strings and educations from trumpets and horns battered oat the senses in a celebration that anticipated the violent later symphonies of Shostakovich. The tuba anchored the bottom end here as the brass players had an absolute field day battling the strings for control of the awkward main theme.

The last time the Philharmonic played this work at Avery Fisher Hall was in 2012. There, the final Adagio of this symphony became the soundtrack to a farce as a wayward iPhone alarm made a memorable contribution to that performance. No such disasters occurred here, just a gorgeous and serene reading of this slow fade-out, which somehow still had a sense of urgency despite its slow tempo. With Mr. Haitink's sure hand, these last pages reminded one how superb this string section really can be, as the violins, violas amd principal 'cello voiced the longing main theme one last time, stopping suddenly like a mighty heart that had decided to beat its last.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.