Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Mahler 9 as abstract art - Haitink, Prom 5 2009

Conductors should not treat Mahler as a "free for all", says Bernard Haitink. "Mahler's symphonies should not be treated as fantasies, rhapsodies. They are very carefully structured. He was a conductor, he knew very well what he was doing. Emotion is there but one should not tilt the balance".

Please see HERE for more on Haitink and Das Lied von der Erde.

Because the 9th was Mahler's last completed symphony, the myth has it that it must be gloomy and death ridden. Sometimes extreme anguish can work, such as with Horenstein's two recordings, the second of which is almost too painful to listen to. Horenstein is valid because he's expressing real feelings inspired by the music. He's not indulging himself in imagined pathos for its own sake.

But there is more to Mahler than agony. Modern scholarship shows that Mahler was an intellectual, who could see beyond surface emotions. Unlike dotty Victorian sentimentalists, he didn't get off on the pornography of death, but strived to understand what was beyond. He loved life, and nature and the power of the soul to transcend earthly limitations.

In this amazing Prom, Bernard Haitink produced a performance of ethereal, spiritual clarity, so pure that it felt like abstract art. As Haitink said, the coda is "timeless", soaring ever higher until it disappears from human hearing. To Haitink it is a "farewell" but not in a maudlin sense, but in the sense that Mahler is heading into unknown territory, where earthly constraints no longer apply. Mahler is stretching the boundaries, heading towards a new beginning. That's why it's so exhilarating.

Almost immediately, Haitink establishes the ground rules. He gets a surprisingly sweet, warm sound from the London Symphony Orchestra completely different from the sour crudeness Gergiev produced. Instead, Haitink gets the strings to play with such gossamer lightness that the sound seems to rise into the air. Open horizons, endless possibilties, the finale already in sight. Suddenly the pace steps up with the striding theme led by brass. things forward. There's definite, purposeful direction beneath this delicate spirit.

It's not for nothing that Mahler was a keen hiker who spent much time in the mountains. Think back to the "mountain peaks" of the Third Symphony and the panoramic vistas that unfold. Here we hear them again, when Mahler might have thought his hiking days over. Haitink's light touch brings out the sub-themes, which swirl like wind, circulating in spirals but always pushing forward. From this evolves the solo violin, played by the leader, Gordan Nikolitch. Even by his standards, this was exceptionally beautiful. The violin soars but doesn't take off on its own. Instead it dialogues with the flute, here played with great delicacy by Gareth Davies. It's like watching two birds flying together. Then the violin takes flight and soars ever higher beyond the reach of the flute.

Because the second movement is titled Im Tempo eines gemächliches Ländlers, it's easy to assume it's a straightforward depiction of country dances, but Mahler has been using these images so often that we know he's not entirely literal. Haitink doesn't exaggerate the dance aspects, not even the muted swagger. Mahler's intructions were that these passages should be played "clumsily", the way real peasants move. The orchestra is solemn and dignified, trying very hard to be earthbound, for soon the mood will change.

Haitink even finds dignity in the Rondo-burleske. Defiance doesn't need to be violent. Indeed, this muted tension seems to spring from sources too deep to be easily defused, and is all the more powerful for that. Stamp, stamp go the angular rhythms, like an impatient beast pounding the ground. Against this suppressed savagery, the notes of the harp take off, flowing up the scale, an image of light, yet again.

When the final movement begins. it's clear from Haitink's reading that it's a resolution of what has gone before. This Adagio seems to lift off, rising higher and higher. It moves in ever increasing circles like a bird hovering over the earth. The "stamping" theme of the Rondo burleske surfaces in muted form but is left far behind. Haitink plays this orchestra so well that the music seems to grow, smoothly and naturally, like an organic being. Gradually. literal detail fades into abstraction. Are we seeing the world below disappearing like a bird might see it when entering clouds? The final lift off is magical, the sound receding as it were being drawn up into the stratosphere. If Mahler has headed off, it's into the transcendent light, the Urlicht, which has fascinated him all along.

In this Prom, Haitink is aligned with the light-infused, spiritual approach to Mahler, like Boulez and Abbado, rather than Bernstein, Gergiev et al. This is where performance practice has been leading to for forty years. But Mahler's anniversary is coming up, and with that comes crass self-serving commercialism. Already there's pressure to package the composer so he'll sell to the populist market as "operatic" or "Wagnerian", downplaying just how unique he really was. Even Bruno Maderna gets called an "arch modernist", which is odd news, particularly to those who've actually heard Maderna conduct Mahler.

photo credit
For more on Mahler, click labels on right.

1 comment:

Juliet said...

I found this review helpful and enlightening, although it has helped me to identify that I personally prefer the other approach to Mahler and therefore admired more than liked this particular performance, notwithstanding its distinction