Haitink Revels In Many Wonders Of Mahler’s Seventh

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(Todd Rosenberg photo)
With economical gestures, Bernard Haitink led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Mahler Symphony No. 7.
(Photo by Todd Rosenberg)
By Lawrence B. Johnson

CHICAGO — Not only with respect to age is Bernard Haitink, at 86, the eminence grise among Mahler conductors today. His association with Mahler’s symphonies is as close and authoritative as it is long. That profound perspective was again evident on April 9 when Haitink led a poetic excursion through the Seventh Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

(Todd Rosenberg)
For Haitink the starting point is pianissimo. (Rosenberg)

At some point after the work’s premiere in Prague in 1908, an imaginative observer dubbed this grandiose work “The Song of the Night.” While the nickname has only loosely stuck, it well fits the Seventh’s essentially nocturnal character and indeed aptly describes Haitink’s approach to the piece.

If softness and ineffable mystery dwell in the essence of night, Haitink by temperament is already halfway home with the Mahler Seventh when he picks up his baton. Many years ago, midway through a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos he was conducting with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy, I asked Haitink about the amazing dramatic effects he achieved without actually summoning a great deal of sound. His explanation: You begin with a true pianissimo.

Since then, I’ve heard him conduct many times with various orchestras, and that base line of sound at the threshold of audibility has consistently marked his interpretive starting point. Implicit in that fundamental quiescence is another key to Haitink’s success as a conductor of Mahler: minute attention to detail and, with it, clear articulation of the counterpoint upon which the composer’s style rests.

All of this applies nowhere more fully than in the Seventh Symphony, which Haitink has recorded twice, with the Berlin Philharmonic and in a complete traversal of the Mahler symphonies with the Royal Concertgebouw, long before his stunning break with that orchestra. In the last decade, Haitink also has made live recordings of four Mahler symphonies — Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 6 — with the Chicago Symphony. Indeed, the Dutch maestro’s relationship with Chicago has been very close, dating back to his debut at Orchestra Hall in 1976. Haitink has toured internationally with the CSO and  served as its principal guest conductor in the interval between Daniel Barenboim’s departure as music director in 2006 and the arrival of his successor, Riccardo Muti, in 2010.

(Moritz Nahr)
Mahler’s Seventh: “The Song of the Night.” (Moritz Nähr)

While Mahler didn’t dream up the title “Song of the Night,” he did begin the five-movement, 80-minute Seventh, in 1904, by writing two shadowy nocturnes, the second and fourth movements, which he labeled Nachtmusik I and Nachtmusik II, separated by a skittering, ghostly scherzo marked — what else? — Schattenhaft (Shadowy).

By the time the Seventh was completed the next year, this mysterious triptych had been framed by a huge opening movement that careens forward as if in twilight and a blazing finale that drives all darkness away. What had begun more than an hour before in a murky flow between B minor and E minor ends in sunny C major. That splashing, virtuosic windup has always been the chief source of criticism leveled against the Seventh Symphony, as if Mahler had lost his way, his vision perhaps impaired by the very darkness he had created.

But no such disconnect applied to Haitink’s thrilling account with the Chicagoans. The conception was organic from the first, with a magical tenor horn solo that established the prevailing night-spirit and flashes of military band music that harkened back to Mahler’s childhood. Characteristically, Haitink led with economical gestures, mere flicks of the wrist sending the music into soaring waves of sound.

In the two Nachtmusik episodes, Haitink’s understated precision allowed dialogues to spin out in eloquent sotto voce among horns and woodwinds against a silken backdrop of strings. Especially elegant was the pointillist serenade by guitar and mandolin in the second Nachtmusik. Haitink caught the scherzo’s spectral bearing perfectly: Slithering string phrases raced and paused and plunged and jerked in a mad conjuring of deepest night. It was Bald Mountain in a Vienna wood.

CSO Mahler
Haitink and the CSO have released four Mahler symphony discs.

Like the Fifth Symphony, also laid out in five movements, the Seventh ends with a spectacular flight of orchestral writing in full contrapuntal glory, as if we have survived this mad night and have good reason to celebrate. Here was Haitink at his deceptively laid-back best, pulling out the stops without pushing the orchestra. The Chicago Symphony’s banners of sound were flying as if wind blown — though it really looked more like the band, at Haitink’s gentle nudging, was just breezing along.

Haitink also will conduct the Mahler Seventh with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich May 20-21 and lead the London Symphony in Mahler’s First Symphony at the Barbican Centre in London on June 14 and at the Paris Philharmonie on June 16.

Lawrence B. Johnson, former music critic for The Detroit News, is editor of the performing arts web magazine ChicagoOntheAisle.com.