Mahler’s final completed symphony has been something of a favourite for recent music directors of the Berlin Philharmonic, although the orchestra clearly likes to ration its performances. Simon Rattle conducted the last one here six years ago, but with the conductor and orchestra having just returned from a long tour in the Far East – and having given a guest appearance last week at the newly sort-of reopened Staatsoper unter den Linden – the baton was passed to Bernard Haitink.

Bernard Haitink © Monika Rittershaus
Bernard Haitink
© Monika Rittershaus

The band also fielded personnel that, if not exactly constituting a B-team (this is a squad that epitomises strength in depth), lacked a few of its starrier players. But the sheer quality of the playing, the richness and focus of the orchestra’s sound in the forthright, vivid acoustic of its home was undimmed, proving especially trenchant in the pared-down sound world of late Mahler.

As Haitink gently set the score in motion, almost nonchalantly, it was the melting, halting tenderness of the second violins’ line, gently creeping in, that indicated that this was likely to be a performance to cherish. The impression was underlined when they were joined by the cellos and first violins, concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley leading from the front, and their yearning counterpoints.

Each successive entry brought more quality. The scything brass cut through the first climax to thrilling effect, the woodwinds allied pinpoint clarity with vivid characterization and the horns, always burnished and rich, were on especially fine form – David Cooper was magnificent in the solos.

I occasionally longed for something duskier and more impressionistic in the sound – not to be able to hear every word of Mahler’s whispered phrases – but the clarity was compelling, and the forceful urgent swell with which the sinewy counterpoint would rise up to each climax imbued the movement with almost heroic determination. I found myself rooting as rarely before for the symphony’s protagonist – love, life, Mahler himself, whoever it may be – even if we were never in any doubt of the music’s default sense of resignation, of that ultimate all-too-human failure.

Everything was underpinned by conducting from Haitink that offered the opening Andante comodo as one grand arc. The conductor is now a frail figure, but his technique has become a marvel of concision, the merest gesture able gently to rock the music back into motion after each shattering climax.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker © Monika Rittershaus
Bernard Haitink conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Monika Rittershaus

And though the conductor's own walk to the podium was slow, the ‘walking pace’ of this first movement was bracing, never indulgent or maudlin. The funereal march with which we trudge to the reprise – “with such malign pomp,” Adorno wrote, “a mandarin is buried” – retained a dignity and certain stiff-lipped discipline that made the movement’s final dissolution all the more moving.

Haitink unleashed plenty of rustic energy in the relentless Ländler of the second movement. The orchestra’s second violins offered a good impression of roughing it as they introduced the main theme, the bassoons and horns parping and braying their interjections merrily before the full orchestral statements – forceful and visceral – reminded us how much was at stake. The biting satire of the Rondo-Burleske, meanwhile, can rarely have had sharper – or straighter and whiter – teeth than it did here, making the movement's melting central section all the more disarming, the trumpet solo soaring aloft.

This was a foretaste of an account of the final Adagio that combined supreme serenity and supreme calm and concentration to almost unbearably moving effect. The string sound, alternately whispered and thrillingly full-fat, wrung every last drop of emotion from Mahler’s lines, while the solo work from across the orchestra’s sections was superb – Dominik Wollenweber’s cor anglais and Naoko Shimizu’s viola solos deserve special mention. This was orchestral virtuosity, across the broadest imaginable dynamic range, of the most complete sort, technical and interpretative. Haitink’s conducting, meanwhile, let the music unfurl – and ultimately disintegrate –with a natural, patient inevitability. This was a memorable, moving night at the Philharmonie.