Sir Simon Rattle once graciously admitted that he could tell when Bernard Haitink had conducted his Berliner Philharmoniker because they sounded “more relaxed, spacious and expressive”. Haitink’s reading of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and that monumental apogee of angst, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was certainly “spacious and expressive” but unsurprisingly, not exactly “relaxed”.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda

The notoriously unloquacious Haitink is one of the few conductors who can mould an orchestra’s generic sound to his own aural concept through an impeccably unambiguous baton technique and concise minimal gestures. This singular attribute, most evident in refining the instrumental balance, even applies to leading ensembles with a defined klang such as the venerable Berliner Philharmoniker. The typical “Haitink sound” is characterized by translucent instrumental clarity derived from meticulous mastery of the score. Haitink is legendary for constantly re-studying scores which he has performed since a mere knapp at the Dutch Radio Conductor’s Course. Some critics have found this approach more intellectual or architectural than spontaneously passionate, but the Haitink methodology works brilliantly without the volcanic tempestuousness of Bernstein or podium tyranny of George Szell. 

There is something ethereal, mystical and even disturbing about Schubert’s unfinished opus. From the whispered spectral introduction, the Berliners more than rivalled their Viennese cousins in sensuous string mellifluousness. The anxious piano semiquaver violin rhythms preceding the maudlin oboe and clarinet theme were gossamer light and rhythmically pristine. The honey timbre of the cellos in the exquisite second theme was simply gorgeous – in no small measure due to the exceptional acoustics of the Philharmonie. A sense of wistful serenity permeated the first movement, even in the dynamic climaxes when trombones and horns were more foreboding than confrontational and the celebrated Berliner brass justified their reputation with sensitive and nuanced playing. Haitink’s tempi were broad, elegiac and intensely lyrical. The mood of reflective other-worldliness continued in the second movement, with some deeply moving solos by principal clarinet Andreas Ottensamer. The fortissimo marcato string tuttis were again more ominous than rambunctious and the final pianissimo E major chord faded gently into contemplative stillness. Sublime.

Mahler considered his posthumously performed Das Lied von der Erde so bleak he speculated that the audience may want to “go out and shoot themselves”. Certainly the second half of the programme continued the mood of sinistrous mystery foreshadowed in the Schubert. Written just after his gigantic Eighth, Mahler was engulfed in multiple personal tragedies and disappointments and there is surely no greater musical expression of morbid Weltschmerz. Mahler originally intended the vocal parts to alternate between tenor and alto, but did note parenthetically “or baritone”. Although the contrasting tenor-alto timbres are generally more effective, tenor Christian Eisner and baritone Christian Gerhaher failed to provide the optimal contrast. 

Eisner has a robust voice with an agreeable mezzavoce but lacked dramatic conviction and measured phrasing. The tessitura is truly terrifying with abundant top A naturals and B flats but Eisner’s intonation was variable and the extreme upper register often pushed. There was hesitancy in the opening “Das Trinklied” although the rollicking Wunderhorn-esque “Der Trunkene im Frühling” was more successful with a stentorian top A on “betrunken sein”. The longer baritone part was sung by Gerhaher with sensitivity, intelligence, exemplary diction and a seductive lieder-like timbre. Gerhaher’s interpretation was not so much abject Sturm und Drang as one of profound personal anguish. “Ich weine viel in meinen Einsamkeiten” was less self-pitying than a fatalistic acknowledgement of the hopelessness of the human condition. “Der Abschied” was a model of splendid phrasing and word colouring and the underlying Mahlerian conviction that “Mir auf dieser Welt das Glück nicht hold!” sung with preternatural pathos. The accompanying oboe solos by Albrecht Mayer were achingly poignant.

Haitink was one of the first conductors to champion the works of Mahler in the UK and his deep affinity for this complex composer was evident. He once remarked that “my worry is that Mahler is performed louder and louder to make a success” and he seemed determined to emphasise the many chamber-like passages of the partitura within the huge orchestral framework. Curiously the concluding G major chord to “Von der Schönheit” was far louder than the pppp indicated and the celesta in “Der Abschied” much too intrusive. On the other hand, the brass was consistently superb, strings refulgent and Ottensamer gave another stellar performance. His corporal gyrations in “Von der Jugend” were a rare moment of frivolity in a work of almost insufferable melancholy. 

It was the “Song of the Earth” but the combination of one of the greatest orchestras in the world with a legendary Mahler maestro took this performance to a celestial level.