Haitink and the CSO close season with a memorable Mahler Ninth

Thu Jun 02, 2011 at 11:59 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gustav Mahler in 1909, the year he began work on the Ninth Symphony.

It’s been a long and eventful Chicago Symphony Orchestra season, one that started last September on a celebratory note with Riccardo Muti’s inaugural fete at Millennium Park.

The CSO is closing its 120th season this weekend with Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 — a work that marks this centennial year of the composer’s death, but also seems apt for a long season beset with triumphs and great difficulties that must have seemed nearly as arduous a journey as Mahler’s last years for those closely involved.

Mahler’s final completed symphony is for many his greatest work, a vast epic wiedersehen laden with valedictory feeling as well as moments of bleakness and despair. There is characteristic sorrow and angst, but the symphony does not end in complete tragedy. For all its Mahler handprints, the Ninth actually is less subjective and overtly emotional than most of Mahler’s scores, as if the composer found a way to transcend personal tragic events to reach a richer and deeper acceptance of life and death.

Bernard Haitink conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 Thursday night at Orchestra Hall. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

One expected great things with Bernard Haitink leading one of the world’s finest Mahler orchestras in a work that he has been closely associated with for more than half a century. And the expressive, profound and mostly beautifully played performance Thursday night at Symphony Center likely disappointed few in the sold-out hall.

The Dutch conductor’s mastery of this tortuously complex score is so detailed and complete that his rock-solid integrity and interpretive neutrality become great assets. There is no reason to gin up the volume or contrasts or exaggerate the emotional extremes when the score is presented with this kind of mature understanding, meticulous balancing and textural clarity.

Yet there was nothing stolid or bloodless about this Mahler Nine, and countless felicities. The opening statement had a tender intimacy that was almost more of a reverie than the heavy-handed sighing of less subtle conductors. Climaxes were majestic with great punch and power — as with the notably baleful trombones –yet never overblown.

Haitink and the players put across the raffish sardonic swagger of the Landler-colored second movement, with the conductor’s balancing making one appreciate anew the imaginative nuances of Mahler’s scoring. The team also had the full measure of the Rondo-Burleske with its restless acidulous energy, and brief noble calm, the coda thrown off with crazed ferocity.

Yet it was the closing Adagio that remains in the memory. Rarely will one hear this deeply emotional music rendered with such simple eloquence and expressive restraint, the music moving from deep despair through uncharted psychic dislocation before reaching a kind of elevated stoicism and spiritual acceptance. The playing of the CSO strings in the long final pages was unearthly in its hushed concentration and barely audible ppp dynamics.

This memorable performance would have been inspired enough to release in Haitink’s Mahler quasi-cycle on the CSO’s Resound label, were it not for the maladroit horn playing. There were some brief flashes of the robust Dale Clevenger of old Thursday but also far too many moments when the principal horn’s playing was shaky, thin-toned and tentative — not quite catastrophic but enough lapses to spoil any possible CD release. With its myriad hurdles for solo horn, it was obvious to anyone attending CSO concerts over the past year that associate principal Daniel Gingrich should have been in the first chair for these performances.

Happily, the rest of the orchestra played gloriously with Robert Chen’s luminous violin solos among his finest work of recent seasons. Sterling contributions were also had by violist Li-Kuo Chang, bassoonist David McGill, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, oboist Eugene Izotov, flutist Mathieu Dufour, and piccolo Jennifer Gunn.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m.  Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Haitink and the CSO close season with a memorable Mahler Ninth”

  1. Posted Jun 04, 2011 at 11:20 am by Chris

    Thank you for this review. This piece indeed was a great way to finish a great season; however, I am a bit more reluctant to call it a complete success.

    Although struggling with unity in the first several bars, the orchestral playing was superb. All of the players you highlighted played marvelously and were really allowed to show their skill and abilities to add nuance. The few flubs that I heard I mostly chalked up to end-of-season fatigue, yet I find myself in full agreement with you about Clevenger; Gingrich would have been my preferred choice in the obbligato passages.

    This is a difficult piece for me because I think one must find a balance between an overbearing sentimentality and cold intellectualism. I thought Haitink’s approach tended a bit toward the latter, finding it a little too restrained. Perhaps it is my familiarity with the piece, but I was continually longing for some momentum and continuity; I could almost hear the letters over the bars on the score delineating new sections.

    I really enjoyed Haitink’s tempo in the Landler section, but the phrasing seemed to have much more the character of a minuet, a bit too prissy for a Landler in my opinion.

    The Rondo-Burleske, while wonderfully played, lacked the sort of forward drive that makes it such a great movement. While it is tempting to want to tease out and highlight all of the wonderful contrapuntal writing, I believe it should indeed border on the psychotic; this was, in my opinion, Mahler’s deft use of irony. It also makes the calm of the Adagio that much more powerful.

    The Adagio was marvelous. The orchestra really melded together perfectly and was, for me as well, the most memorable portion of the evening. It truly was inspired. While not disappointed, I left Orchestra Hall wishing for a more complete interpretation.


    Thank you for reading and I look forward to more of your reviews!

    Thank you,

Leave a Comment