Bernard Haitink has conducted 11 different orchestras during his many visits to the Proms, but this was his first appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of which he became Principle Conductor in 2006.
Appropriately enough, the concert commenced with the European premiere of Chicago Remains by Mark-Anthony Turnage, who is currently a composer-in-residence for the orchestra. Scored for a large ensemble, including Turnage’s trademark soprano saxophone, the work takes its inspiration from Chicago itself, with the rhythmic percussive opening recalling the city’s industrial heritage. As the piece progresses, the initially tense and agitated mood gradually becomes more melodic and reflective, although dark undercurrents are never far away. Sounding rather like a soundtrack to a modern day film noir, Chicago Remains paints a surprisingly bleak picture of the city during its 15 minute duration.
Bernard Haitink has long been an exponent of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, having recorded it with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as long ago as 1969. It is a work he has become performed frequently in recent years, including a presentation at the Proms in 2003.
The performance got off to a fine start, the tempo for the opening movement cognisant of Mahler’s instruction not to go too fast, with a gentle touch of rubato adding expressiveness to the Alma theme. Haitink’s gestures were often minimal during the louder sections, but the orchestra knew what was required and climaxes were well paced. Slightly controversially, the Scherzo was played second the International Gustav Mahler Society now advocates that it be played third, after the Andante but the performance was notable for Haitink’s highlighting of the subtleties in Mahler’s orchestration as well as for the delicacy of the trio sections.
Supported by some fine string playing, Haitink’s approach to the Andante was gently contemplative, the tempo spacious and the main climax elegiac rather than romantic. Up to this point, Haitink’s interpretation was admirable on its own terms, but something else is required for the 30 minute final movement, an essay of enormous technical mastery and searing emotional power. Despite a more urgent tempo than earlier in the symphony, key moments had a sense of constraint and there was a general lack of cumulative power. An exception came in the presentation of the two hammer blows, which can often seem underpowered. Unerringly placed by the percussionist, here their impact was such that an elderly man in front of me physically recoiled after each one, as if struck personally.
Rather surprisingly with an orchestra of this calibre, some fine playing by the first violin and oboe was overshadowed by the principle horn having a bad night and some occasional patchy ensemble elsewhere.