An evening with Bernard Haitink and the New York Philharmonic playing Mahler represents a confluence point between two very important traditions in interpreting his music. Of course, the composer himself led the Philharmonic for a couple of years. Several other music directors – Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Sir John Barbirolli, Willem Mengelberg – were, in distinct ways, major performers of his symphonies. On the other hand, Haitink was for many years at the helm of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, arguably the most Mahlerian of the great European ensembles since Mengelberg’s time.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda

In getting ready for what promised to be a great musical evening, I could not avoid asking myself several questions. How is this version of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony going to be different from Haitink’s other dozens? In particular, how will it compare to his almost half a century old recording with the Concertgebouw on Philips, considered by many to be a benchmark? Is the conductor’s own age going to inform his interpretation? At 87 does Haitink have the stamina needed for conducting such a difficult score?

The performance I attended was a glorious one. It was the fourth in a week’s interval but there was nothing pointing to a routine reading. You could sense that every member of the orchestra was playing at his best for a revered maestro. If one section has to be singled out, the horns (led by Philip Meyers) were exceptionally good. One could barely imagine that a brass instrument could generate such a range of timbres and nuances – forceful, silky, rebellious, nostalgic – when called for.

Haitink’s conducting has sometimes been characterized as bland and lacking fire. There are very few conductors though who can maintain in Mahler’s Ninth the proper balance between an overbearing first movement and the rest, between longing and irony, between the well structured but excessive post romantic past and the fragmented, subjective, dissonant future. With his penchant for clear details, Haitink managed superbly the three different tempo markings in the second Ländler part. He emphasized neither the grotesque nor the folksy but the sense of vulnerability and weariness permeating this music that for me had always stirred memories of Elektra’s impossible dance composed by Richard Strauss at roughly the same time.

The Rondo-Burlesque was the only part that I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about. The sound was a bit too loud, augmented by the always problematic acoustics of the Geffen Hall. I also felt the approach should have been more mercurial. The way Haitink guided the orchestral forces in the final Adagio, keeping the music always flowing and not letting it sound overly melodramatic, was exemplary. The end didn’t signal bitterness or despair but love of living, attained peace, hope. We should all wish to be fortunate enough to listen to Bernard Haitink’s Mahler for years to come.