Relayed in excellent sound – lucid and immediate yet with a discernible perspective and a good dynamic range – this Mahler 9 found the Berliner Philharmoniker in dedicated form and Bernard Haitink confirming (not that any such thing was needed) that he is one of the most clear-sighted of this composer’s interpreters. Looking hale and hearty, with a decisive walk to the podium, Haitink, now eighty-eight, put his lifetime’s experience into this performance (I suspect, without knowing, that it’s the Mahler Symphony he’s conducted the most over numerous decades, a couple of recent examples below, add to which at this year's Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic, twice). Throughout, in Berlin, he avoided excess or exaggeration yet opened up the music to a remarkably expressive degree.
Thus the expansive first movement had a tread to match the Andante marking, albeit with a funereal connotation, and also an accommodation to agree with the comodo instruction in terms of flexibility – and how innate was the Berliners’ responses (also over the years to Karajan, Bernstein, Abbado and Rattle), whether solo (immaculate contributions from concertmaster through to the various horn offerings) or tutti. The wonder, as so often with Haitink, is just how he achieves so much that is so distinctive, yet true to the score in front of him, when his gestures are so minimal; of course, rehearsal plays a big part, although, as I understand it, he is a man of few words during that time anyway – some sort of potent alchemy is clearly at work. Much sadness was in evidence in the opening movement, also the inescapable feeling that the music would boil over; it did albeit in a wholly organic way.
Only now did Haitink take advantage of the seat provided for him (as a couple of latecomers stole in), soon standing again for an incisive and suitably ‘rough’-sounding Ländler-based second movement that will be interrupted and diverted from – twists and turns made inevitable here if without denuding any of them. As for the ‘Rondo-Burleske’, this had a bitter irony and stoicism, dogged, the rhythms keen, counterpoint laid bare, the search for bliss at the movement’s centre found without a trace of sentimentality, yet so affecting. The opening music returned with renewed vigour, and with something (not too much) saved for the determined coda, the only place in this Symphony that Mahler uses a side drum, and then briefly.
With the final Adagio the Berlin strings (violas outside-right, normally these days Haitink favours antiphonal violins) came into their own – rich, intense, ethereal – at once earthly and also summoning the next world. Haitink’s flowing tempo reminded, unfinished at Mahler’s death it may have been, that he had the grand design of a big Tenth Symphony on his desk (eleventh with Das Lied von der Erde). From Berlin, the Ninth’s last movement was eloquent and poignant, leading to a transcendental (immolating) climax, the music fragmenting and finally fading from earshot ... Haitink statuesque as it did so. This was an absorbing ninety minutes.