Haitink, CSO prove golden once again in Mahler

Fri Oct 21, 2011 at 11:57 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Haitink led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in music of Mahler and Schubert Thursday night.

Bernard Haitink’s Mahler cycle with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been steadily making its way through the Austrian composer’s oeuvre and reached the Symphony No. 4 Thursday night at Orchestra Hall.

The Fourth is the shortest and least tragic of Mahler symphonies — though still a substantial work spanning nearly an hour. Even with characteristic acerbic touches and fleeting dark shadows — most famously in the sardonic second movement — the music largely breathes an air of relaxed warmth and spiritual contentment.

That doesn’t mean Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is an easy work to bring off. Indeed, getting the mix of gentle satire and lyric nostalgia right is one of the most challenging interpretive assignments in all of Mahler, not least the famously problematic finale with the soprano soloist singing of a child’s view of the gustatory joys of heaven.

As fine as Haitink’s unfolding Mahler cycle with the CSO has been, the team seems to have reached an even more extraordinary degree of interpretive depth and technical achievement. The richly eloquent Mahler Ninth that closed last season is a testament to this close artistic partnership and the performance of the Fourth Symphony Thursday night was on the same rarefied level.

The strengths of Haitink’s Mahler by now are a well-known quantity in Chicago: a stoic integrity, avoidance of superficial extremes and uncommon tonal refinement.

Yet for all its polish and meticulous balancing, there was nothing studied or over-groomed about this performance. The long first movement emerged with wonderful character from the wryly ironic sleigh bells, to the mordant solo violin and nostalgic ache. Haitink held all the variegated elements in a dexterous balance, the quirky solo interjections and expressive contours emerging with striking clarity without losing the music’s essential earthy nature. The scherzo had all due bite and the slow movement unfolded with just the right ruminative, slightly elegiac expression.

As is so often the case. it was the vocal finale that failed to come off Thursday night. First, there was some stage management issue, with soloist Klara Ek missing her entrance cue (harpist Sarah Bullen actually got up and went to the stage door to look for the tardy soprano).

The Swedish soprano has the right light, guileless instrument for this assignment but proved a bit too lightweight Thursday night. The singer’s words were largely undecipherable and failed to project to the top of the lower balcony. Haitink and the orchestra provided a wondrous accompaniment in the closing sections, however and the audience, mercifully, allowed the hushed glow of the finale to hang in the air for a minute before applauding.

The CSO responded to their former principal conductor with some of the finest playing of the year. Robert Chen’s sour-and-sweet turned-up violin had just the right acidic edge. The playing of Eugene Izotov and Mathieu Dufour was unearthly in its poise and expressive beauty and clarinetist Stephen Williamson contributed his most vital and characterful playing to date in his first season as principal. And what a pleasure to once again hear the CSO horns playing at their glorious best as an ensemble led by Daniel Gingrich’s poetic and polished leadership from the first chair.

It’s too bad that Berg’s Violin Concerto, originally slated for the first half, had to be jettisoned due to the indisposition of soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann since Berg’s broken shards of Late Romanticism would have made an uncommonly fine program mate for Mahler’s symphony.

In the hands of Haitink and the CSO, Schubert’s Symphony No. 5, the replacement work, brought its own considerable rewards. Haitink’s way with Schubert is in the Viennese tradition but with an extra fleetness and quicksilver articulation.

The performance could have used a bit more piquant charm in the outer movements but the Andante went with an apt airy grace, and the 82-year-old conductor directed a notably youthful and spirited finale.

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

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One Response to “Haitink, CSO prove golden once again in Mahler”

  1. Posted Oct 24, 2011 at 7:40 am by Leslie Wilson

    I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. My vantage point of choice is the Terrace where you can feel like a musician and see Haitink’s face. The reviewer is unfortunately accurate and correct about the vocalist portion of the piece. The chemistry between musicians and conductor sparkled.

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