A dying fall

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I HAVE often asked myself what makes a really first-rate Mahler conductor. Temperament, that's for sure. Clear thinking, certainly. A thorough understanding of the fin de siecle is also very important. And I would imagine that a spot of shared biography helps, too. Witnessing Bernard Haitink conduct the London Philharmonic in Mahler's Ninth reminded me that the two men have at least two significant biographical facts in common: heart problems (hopefully put to rights in Haitink's case) and uncomfortable brushes with their respective opera houses. But while Mahler never lived to see his fifty-first birthday, Haitink approaches seventy in full command of his considerable interpretative gifts. He is a great musician in the truest sense of that much abused term, a man of sound artistic principles: patient, passionate, decisive and profoundly honest. To hear him chart Mahler's lengthy opening Andante commodo without undue mannerism or tiresome over-statement, is to appreciate afresh what is surely the century's finest single symphonic movement. Haitink and his players breathed the music's initial paragraphs with an uneasy calm, then made a ferocious beeline for the first fortissimo climax. The contrast was made all the more telling by Haitink's judicious timing.

Ferocity and respite alternated throughout the Symphony's first movement, with the choicest subtleties reserved, performance-wise, for its quietest orchestration. I think in particular of the bassoons, bass clarinet and muted horns; the perfectly paced timpani strokes, the myriad burblings among assorted woodwinds and the pleading lyricism of Mahler's string choirs.

The playing of the London Philharmonic had much to commend it, primarily in terms of the brass (horns in particular) and woodwinds. Just occasionally, I craved a fuller string tone and tighter overall ensemble; but the rhythmic thrust of Haitink's reading was never compromised. The Symphony's second movement is a blustery pot-pourri of Austrian-style dance tunes, cunningly crafted and played on Saturday night with bluff humour. The LPO brass became a village band, though the softer-grained trio sections offered mellower food for thought. Mahler's churlish Rondo Burleske fired off at a dangerously fast tempo. The Orchestra held tight to the reins, slipping slightly every now and then but always maintaining the musical tension. The strings fared best in the haunting trio, but their finest moments were heard towards the close of the Adagio, music so sublime, so poignantly beautiful, that the players seemed reluctant to let it die. But die it did, as Haitink's left arm fell listlessly towards the score and the silence broke with appreciative applause.

Rob Cowan