In a career spanning over 60 years, much of which was spent with one of the great Mahler orchestras, Bernard Haitink has probably conducted more Mahler than anyone else. Recordings tend to shape opinion, but recordings aren't "real life" but only snapshots of a moment, which, once past, is gone. Musicians like Haitink can't churn out the same thing all the time. Thus the importance of constantly learning, constantly re-thinking and developing. And always, drawing insight from source. "Conductors should not treat Mahler as a "free for all", Haitink once said, "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".
Because the 9th was Mahler's last completed symphony, the myth has it that it must be gloomy and death-ridden. Such interpretations are valid, if they reflect a conductor's response. Hence Haitink's comment that interpretation should stem from understanding not wilful intervention. Emotional intelligence enhances nuance: the wider the emotional range, the greater the capacity for understanding. Modern scholarship shows that Mahler was an intellectual, who could see beyond surface sentiment. Unlike many of his era, he didn't get off on the pornography of death, but tried to consider what might lie beyond. He loved life, and nature and the power of the soul to transcend earthly limitations. Throughout his entire output run themes of transformation and renewal. Fifty years ago, we weren't familiar with what Mahler completed in what's now known as his Tenth symphony. We can't blank that out. So bang goes any theory of histrionics in Mahler 9th.
Haitink has conducted Mahler 9th many times, so it's pointless to think he does a "standard" version. But one performance sticks in my mind because it moved me so much. It was in London, in 2009. I wrote then that he "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 possibilities, the finale already in sight. Suddenly the pace steps up with the striding theme led by brass. Things move 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 instructions 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 if 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."