Friday, 15 March 2019

Haitink at 90 - Dvořák. Mahler 4, LSO Barbican

Bernard Haitink, Isabelle Faust, London Symphony Orchestra   photo: Roger Thomas
 Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, marking the conductor's 90th birthday, and his long association with the LSO and with London. This second concert featured Antonín Dvořák Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 (B.108),with Isabelle Faust with Gustav Mahler Symphony no 4 in G major.  Good companions ! Dvořák's Violin Concerto isn't a typical concerto, flowing almost like a series of variations.  But then Mahler's Symphony no 4 isn't typical either, progressing towards a final movement built on a song.  How well these two pieces work together, enhancing each other! This programme was as thoughtfully constructed as Sunday's concert with Mozart Piano Concerto with Till Fellner and Bruckner Symphony no 4  (Please read more here).

A superb Dvořák Violin Concerto, the orchestra alive from the first downstroke, from which the main theme quickly materialized. Here the effect was almost magical, the high, bright timbre of Faust's violin singing like a spirit of nature. Faust was playing with a freedom that imbued the piece with youthful freshness and vigour. More connections between the concerto and the symphony in which a child sings of heavenly pleasures.  Energetic rhythms contrast with lyrical, song-like lines, suggestions of folk dance adding pastoral flavour. I blissed out.

This Dvořák served as an overture for Mahler's Symphony no 4 setting the context.  Haitink proceeded with gusto, capturing the energy in the first movement.  Though sleigh bells feature prominently, this isn't a literal depiction of a sleigh in a wintry landscape.  Rather it is a metaphor for life. The sleigh bells aren't there just as folksy decoration.  A sleigh ride is a journey with a destination.  No cars in Mahler's time, so if you wanted horsepower,  horses were where it was at.  Trains might have been faster, but horses are living creatures, a significant image in a symphony which deals with life and physical enjoyment.  The first movement  connects inexorably to the last, where earthly life may be over, but heavenly life continues.  Haitink knows why speed alone isn't essential.  Mahler's marking is "Bedächtig, nicht eilen"  ie not mad rush but orderly progression.  Change is inevitable but we want to enjoy what we can, while we can.

The transition to the second movement marked a new stage in the journey. Haitink defined the dance-like figures, making connections to the Ländler to come.  Another good reason for connectingb the symphony with Dvořák's Violin Concerto where the series of figures evoke dance. Though Mahler came from a German-speaking community, socially distinct from the Bohemians among which they lived, the influence of Czech forms on his music needs to be better understood, especially since as a conductor he conducted much Czech repertoire.  At first the solo violin sings alone, then is joined by other instruments. The leader doesn't use two violins for nothing (George Tudorache, Guest Leader).  Sometimes there can be more malevolence in the scherzo, the "Freund' Hein" imagery evoking the medieval dance of death.   In this case, however, the malevolence was understated but subtlety is no demerit : no mistaking the chill that sets in when the strings in the ensemble shiver, suggesting cutting winds (sleigh-ride imagery again), and also the circular figures that follow, again emphazing cyclic change.  The horns defined "winds" of change and a change of mood but the third movement, marked Ruhevoll,  is the real transition, a purgatory in which the issues of death are resolved into a more perfect "heavenly life".Thus the calm but determined pace and the repeated "waves" of sound.  Horns and winds here were impressive, coloured in Dvořák hues.  An excellent  climax, timpani pounding, horns blazing, the strings shining, the harps adding heavenly light, sustained woodwind lines calling out into space.  Whatever this represents, it is the transitional point in the symphony, claering away the past. Again, Haitink showed how it's not volume per se that counts but the hint that a new future awaits ahead
Haitink has probably conducted more Mahler than anyone else : not to know Haitink's Mahler is not to know Mahler.  His less-is-more conducting style eschews bombast, but is ideally attuned to the sensitivity that reveals Mahler's greatest depths.  There can be many ways of interpreting the final movement, but so much pivots on the singer.  The voice should be pure enough to suggest a child, though no child has the heft to sing with such power for roughly 15 minutes with barely a break.  The song expresses happiness so complete that it verges on ecstasy, but thius ecstasy has been won at the expense of tragedy. The child in the text is dead, whether killed by starvation, or from disasters like the ill-fated Crusade of St. Ursula   Singers with clear, high timbres can create the angelic aspects of the piece but physical sensuality is also part of the mix : "Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden," Das himmlisches Leben isn't an easy sing,  by any means.
Sally Matthews substituted earlier in the week for the scheduled soloist, Anna-Luisa Richter, who has been described as "a young Elly Ameling". Sally Matthews sang the soprano part in Haitink's Munich Beethoven Symphony no 9, in February, but the soprano part in Mahler 's Symphony no 4 is an altogether different prospect.  Up to this point, Haitink and the LSO had been creating a Mahler 4 of exquaite refinement and delicacy, but the singing here didn't connect.  This interpretation was more sturdy school hymn than divine transfiguration. Whatever the technical faults, what matters above all else is the expression of meaning. If being reborn on a more rarified, heavenly plane isn't exciting what then is the point of surviving death? Haitink has done many wonderful Mahler Fourths over the last 60 years. As a Mahler conductor, he is unique and greatly cherished. A pity then that this last section was so unsatisfying, leaving us hungering for what could have been.  

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