Mahler 4 | Bernard Haitink | Berliner Philharmoniker

by Glenn on January 1, 2016

For the last CD of 2015, I returned to a delightful performance of a favorite work : Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Bernard Haitink.

Haitink’s approach is a big-picture one. He doesn’t micro-manage his orchestra, doesn’t seem interested in too much starting and stopping, which the first movement, especially, does allow for. I’ve heard conductors overdo it. Haitink errs on the side of underdoing it, but that is as close to a complaint as I want to get to about this recording. The virtue is that the playing on this recording sounds neither overwrought nor affected. It manages to feel very relaxed yet very much in control.

The Berlin players are phenomenal. The ability of orchestra members alternatively to stand out impressively and blend extraordinarily is a marvel. What is so striking is how overwhelmingly powerful they can be as a band when they cut loose. Their loud is quite loud and sounds effortless.

The third movement adagio, in particular, is sublime. In those quiet passages where the violins are playing in the stratosphere, in many recordings they can sound a little (sometimes a lot) strident. Not here. They shimmer. It’s virtuosic playing.

The first three movements set up the fourth. The soprano makes or breaks a Mahler 4 performance/recording. Sylvia McNair is my favorite soprano in this work, which is why this particular recording is in my desert island collection. She has a crystal-clear voice and offers a child-like quality in her singing. (The primary failing of most singers in this work is that they bring an operatic style, which is to say a big vibrato, entirely out of character with the whole thing.)

I don’t think anything like this had happened in a symphony before. Beethoven, obviously, introduced a choir and soloists in his Ninth symphony, a concept which Mahler imitated in his Second. But this is so different. It’s relaxed and quiet and gentle. All the work has gone on before. This last movement is an exclamation point but it’s wrapped in velvet.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Sibelius lately. Wow, these two composers come from such different worlds and compositional assumptions. In this symphony, Mahler takes us to a child’s view of heaven. I’m still not sure what Sibelius is doing in his symphonies, which is not to say I don’t like them. At this point I really enjoy two or three of them. I just don’t understand them as well, yet.