BBC Proms reviews

Prom 70: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Haitink: Mahler @ Royal Albert Hall, London

6 September 2006

With the imminent end of the 2006 Proms season and the apparent resurrection of Summer, Bernard Haitink conducted a stately and at times sombre performance of Mahler’s monumental Second Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There was a return to the warm conditions of July in a packed Albert Hall for this eagerly-awaited concert. Haitink is one of the great conductors in the world today and we expect this to be evident in Mahler as much as anywhere else.

It was unfortunate, therefore, that this wasn’t anywhere near as overwhelming as I had anticipated. Tempi were very slow, particularly in the first movement, and the whole performance wasn’t as energetic or vibrant as we know Haitink can be in this repertoire. There was some quite ragged work and even a sense of boredom from the orchestra at times.

Some of the climaxes were fine and the conductor brought out the greatly contrasting dynamics of the work strongly with much delicacy of playing as well, but it really didn’t start to take off until the very end, when it was just too late.

The sombre tone and almost turgid pace of the first movement was carried over into the Andante, with the Ländler music lacking in buoyancy and sparkle, although the pizzicato section, with brief piccolo entries, was delightful.

The mezzo-soprano was Christianne Stotijn, who gave an impassioned account of the fourth movement text (Urlicht). This was the highlight of the evening but the soprano in the following section, the usually reliable Susan Gritton, holding on firmly to her score throughout, made a less effective contribution.

After the mighty opening of the final movement, there was a return to the very slow tempo of the beginning of the evening, which had a real sagging effect at that stage. The tremendous finale saw the full forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, soloists and the Albert Hall organ bring the work to a magnificent close, however. There were some wonderful effects in this last movement, with the brass fanfares of the finale ringing out from the top of the auditorium and the crazy off-stage band sounding as though they were in something by Charles Ives.

Mahler allegedly advised his younger colleagues to “study less counterpoint and read more Dostoyevsky” and at times in the symphony you can really believe he said that. He seems to be trying to encapsulate so much of the human experience in its heights and depths, aspirations and fears. The performance reflected this some of the time but, overall, was patchy and rather disappointing. I have heard Bernard Haitink give many great performances but I’m sad to say this wasn’t one of them.

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