Even after the glut of his anniversary year, there is still a lot of Mahler around. Maybe Mahler’s symphonies and songs say something, for some people, about the world today. And over the past 50 years we have rightly come to recognise that there are good musical reasons to put his works at the heart of the canon. Whether we think there is too much Mahler or just enough, the New York Philharmonic still has a good claim to a right to perform it. After all, this was Mahler’s own orchestra for the last three years of his life. While in New York, he never performed his most ambitious symphony. But a glance at the Philharmonic’s archives reveals that a who’s-who of great Mahlerians have substituted over the past century: first Willem Mengelberg in 1922, then Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Boulez, Zubin Mehta, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and Leonard Bernstein. 

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda

This isn’t to say that the Philharmonic really has its own style in this music. In what was, remarkably, his first Mahler performance with this orchestra in a long career, Bernard Haitink basically left the Philharmonic’s players to their own devices. They responded, at times breathtakingly well and at other incoherently and messily, in a performance that was less sleepy than that I heard with these forces a week earlier, but one that saw Haitink on rather less than top form.

With Haitink at the helm, there is a certain baseline that is always there. You know what you’re getting, more often than not: security, structure, and a genuine understanding of where the music has been and where it’s going. This is important enough in itself, indeed it is rare. But what this Third really lacked was a sense of risk, of contingency, and of discovery. Perhaps Haitink sees it as more of a descriptive pastoral than anything else, the depictive programme titles that Mahler eventually rejected (“Summer marches in”; “What the meadow flowers tell me”) being sufficient. Certainly this didn’t evoke what Schoenberg, after hearing the first Vienna performance, called “the struggle for illusions,” or “the forces of evil and good contending.” Instead it was modest, an approach that can work in Mahler, but less often in a symphony that “actually mirrors,” as Mahler wrote, “the whole world.”

The freedom Haitink granted to the Philharmonic did lead to some great moments. The brass principals excelled throughout, from horn to trumpet to trombone. Joseph Alessi’s trombone was especially affecting towards the end of the first movement, the profound loneliness he found in his solo gently comforted by the cellos’ hopeful look to the final movement’s song. The third movement, marked Scherzando, seemed to blend Mendelssohn and Ravel in the way its colours emerged, while the minuet that came before it felt gently cushioned on the wild grasses of the meadow. Climaxes clattered around with a fearsome piling-on of sound. Sophisticated mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink sang worriedly in the Nietzsche of the fourth movement, and imploringly in the Wunderhorn song of the fifth. And the Women of the New York Choral Artists and the children of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus sang with precision and a nicely ethereal edge.

But niggles kept creeping into my head. Haitink’s tempi made sense in relation to one another, as they always do, but generally felt a mite too slow. The woodwinds sounded perky and uncommonly prominent in the textures, but the strings – pushed forward beyond the proscenium arch to accommodate the choir – were often inaudible when Haitink refused to restrain an eager brass section. Over time, tuning went notably awry. Even the finale, a movement that plays to Haitink’s strengths of colour and development, felt more episodic than usual, at once too didactic and not quite certain enough.

It’s a pity that Haitink won’t be back with the Philharmonic next season. Let’s hope he returns after that, as we’ve yet to hear him at his best with this orchestra.