BBC Music Magazine
From the archives
Andrew Mcgregor revisits Haitink’s Bruckner and Mahler cycles in the most vivid remastering ever
It’s easy to forget what landmarks these two Haitink sets were half a century ago (Mahler: Decca 483 4643; 12 CDS + Blu-ray Audio. Bruckner: 483 4660; 10 CDS + Blu-ray Audio). The idea of one conductor and orchestra recording these cycles in the same hall was new. Despite the hiss, the remastering brings us closer to the original tapes than ever before.
Mahler 1 came first in 1962. It’s not the best place to start: passive and uninvolving (the 1972 remake included on the Bluray is better), with a fierce shine to the strings and not much bass. But the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s sound is fascinating: reedy oboe, brass vibrato (as in the trombone solo in Mahler 3), string vibrato applied with more variation than the modern RCO. Even 15 years later in the last of the Mahler recordings there’s similar character, but by now the engineers have become better at capturing the acoustic, and the sound has more depth and bloom. It’s a mixed cycle: 1 and 8 just don’t come off, but the classical poise of the Fourth is better judged, and the Seventh and Ninth are highlights, unerringly paced and with an intensity sometimes missing elsewhere. Fans of Bernstein and Tennstedt’s histrionics could learn much from Haitink’s symphonic instincts and relative restraint. Das Lied with Janet Baker is a legendary account for a reason; Jessye Norman in the Wunderhorn Songs is sheer luxury.
Haitink’s Bruckner is more consistently well-judged, his instincts miraculously aligned with the composer’s breadth and nobility. He has an uncanny ability to begin a Bruckner Symphony with the end already in sight; tempos and transitions are usually beautifully judged, and there’s an inevitability that’s profoundly satisfying.
The Third was recorded first in 1963 and has the driest sound.
The Fourth was next (better), then the Ninth, delivered with exalted conviction, the equal performance-wise of any in the catalogue. Bruckner 5 reaches similar ecstatic heights; only the Eighth for me is misjudged, momentum sacrificed for sheer speed. Good to Have Bruckner ‘0’ as well; Haitink makes an excellent case for it. violins and harrumphing brass all register vividly in the ‘strife and wars’ section, without becoming bombastic. The horn solo in the canto populare is gorgeously dreamy, while the coda is refulgently warm and generous. This is one of the most attractive, personable versions of In the South currently on offer.
Much the same can be said of Petrenko’s Enigma Variations. The opening theme and first variation are again striking in their textural clarity, with woodwind detail emerging felicitously. It’s striking how tenderly affectionate each portrait is, as Petrenko paints it. ‘R.B.T.’S penchant for amateur dramatics is playfully mimicked but not caricatured, in ‘Ysobel’ one senses the patient sensitivity of the teacher for his viola student, and even ‘W.M.B’ is less indiscriminately blustering than usual. ‘Nimrod’ flows naturally forward, and is entirely free of the self-conscious sentimentality which sometimes sinks it, while the concluding
‘E.D.U.’ is resplendently delivered by the excellent Liverpool players.
Add a tender, subtly expressive account of the Serenade for Strings and outstanding recorded sound, and you have an Elgar disc which ranks among the most edifying and enjoyable of recent years. Terry Blain PERFORMANCE ★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★★