If the remaining two presentations of this LSO programme (not requiring trombones or tuba) – whether at Philharmonie de Paris on the 18th or back at the Barbican on the 21st – are able to match this ‘first night’ then a great evening is in prospect, for this was a wonderful, if possibly perplexing, Mahler 4 and it didn’t overshadow Isabelle Faust’s magnetic playing of Dvořák.
In the adorable Violin Concerto, Bernard Haitink conjured plenty of Slavonic if stately fieriness and eloquent lyricism – the slow movement in the latter respect was an expressive marvel – which proved the perfect and precision fit for Faust. She, although playing from copy, gave a commanding and irresistible account of the solo part, finding charismatic cohorts in the beautifully-blended and -balanced woodwinds, in a reading of the first movement that had no need for showmanship to make the music’s meaningful and directional points, Faust’s bravura serving only the music, and she was the dreamer of dreams in the Adagio – silky-smooth in execution and timbre, the LSO glowing. Dvořák welds these movements together, the second being an extension of certain aspects of the first, to which Haitink added an attacca, Faust a smile, into the song-and-dance Finale, balletic here, with light and shade yet no lack of exuberance, and there was a standout few bars for guest-principal horn Katy Woolley. There was never a moment to doubt the close rapport between violinist and conductor.
Nor was there any question that Haitink was also totally in authority of his current view of the Mahler. It was certainly time-taken, the first movement hovering around the twenty-minute mark, maybe too gemütlich, or overly-analysed if not clinical/interventionist although with delightful incident, not contrasted enough in terms of tempo and moods, but it was also the epitome of integration with bar-by-bar internal logic, sure of its course and reaching its (sometimes nightmarish, not here) peak in perfectly calibrated dynamics and outreach; and with plenty of ‘bells-up’ projections along the way. I found it fascinating if not always convincing, although Mahler’s main markings translate as “Deliberate, not hurried – Very leisurely”, and Haitink was true to these descriptions.
However, when George Tudorache picked up his second, tone-higher, violin, we had something appropriately edgy and spooky, flowing too, but the core of the performance was a solemnly beautiful and rapt slow movement, hushed and deep in a forest, somewhat flexible if without too much disruption, Haitink once again finding a through line, and also a valedictory attribute that on this occasion pointed to the Ninth Symphony (even though Mahler planned and got so far with a Tenth), until the big climax (Sally Matthews entering at this point as a side-of-stage lady-in-waiting) – which might be heard as Heaven’s Gates opening – and it was a tumultuous assumption, for Haitink had saved something for this moment, and its radiant envoi was akin to a spiritual arrival.
If Matthews (replacing Anna Lucia Richter, as she will twice more) wasn’t always light (childlike) enough in the Wunderhorn Finale she was however generous with word-painting, and offered an affecting and consoling lullaby in the ultimate verse, the close of which was a magical fade (left-positioned double basses and harp) to a significant and well-observed silence. A heartfelt standing ovation followed, deep-bowed-to by Haitink, and the LSO, just as appreciative, had played like angels for him: Das himmlische Leben.