There are many ways to approach Mahler, but having witnessed so much self indulgence on the part of some recent conductors (who will remain nameless) it was a blessing and a relief to be in the presence of one of the world’s, no the world’s, most experienced Mahlerian, the great Bernard Haitink for this incandescent performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony with the LSO.
His approach is not showy, nor does he try and wring every last ounce of feeling from every phrase, but he searches, and finds the meaning behind the notes. As a conductor he is always at the service of the composer and the results are always impressive. I have had the privilege to hear him conduct many of Mahler’s works but nothing could have prepared me for the intensity he brought to this most personal of the composer’s symphonies.
From the very hushed and ethereal opening of the first movement, there was no doubt that this was going to be a performance of enormous stature, and so it proved to be. Haitink created diaphanous textures within the orchestra the string playing was gossamer-like in its transparency, and the players’ ability to spin out phrases played on the merest thread of tone kept the capacity audience spellbound throughout.
Their playing throughout was perfectly at one with Haitink’s long-breathed take on the piece, and without fault each section rose to the challenge and produced playing that was beyond reproach. People tend to think that Berlin and Vienna have the best orchestras when it comes to performing Mahler, but the LSO proved over and over again that with a conductor of Haitink’s stature at the helm that they are peerless in this repertoire.
The conclusion to the final movement, Mahler’s valedictory message to the world, achieved a sense of nirvana that transported you to a different time and place, where time stood still for a few moments. The effect was magical. After a few brief seconds of silence the audience roared its approval for what had been a quite superlative performance. Haitink and the LSO have probably set an unfeasibly high standard for the rest of the Proms, but if any if the remaining concerts come close to matching this one, then 2009 will be one of the most memorable seasons in a long time.