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Haitink Leads Long and Lovely Mahler Third with the New York Phil

by James Rosenfield

Haitink, New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall

Photo credit: Ian Douglas, The New York Times

There was both a sense of gravitas and relief when the venerable Bernard Haitink arrived on the Avery Fisher Hall stage Friday night. Slow and halt the last time I saw the Dutch conductor on the podium, Haitink's pace was now quick and vigorous, his posture erect. He used a chair at the podium only between movements.

Put a justly esteemed Mahler conductor in front of a great Mahler orchestra and magic can occur—which is exactly what happened Friday night when Haitink conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's enormous Third Symphony, which clocked in at an expansive 98 minutes.

This is a symphony that begins with a double parody and ends with one of the great love hymns in all of music. The opening brass oration imitates the big tune in the last movement of Brahms's First Symphony, itself an imitation of Beethoven's iconic Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony. An homage to both composers, this is Mahler's self-aware statement of his aspirations to transform the symphonic form.

Haitink seemed acutely aware of Mahler's intentions, and illuminated the variations and repetitions of the opening theme throughout the first movement, including subtle echoes in high string tremolos and basses. The conductor took the first movement at a leisurely pace, 34 minutes—about ten percent longer than many performances—but never dragged for a second. In the spooky, goblinesque sections, the programmatic ambiguities of "Pan Awakens" (the original title of the movement) were transparently clear, with Pan creating summer and also a sense of panic.

For all the hugeness of his orchestras, Mahler almost always uses tuttis with great restraint, embedding solos, duos, trios, and other chamber music forms within the larger body of instruments. Beginning in the first movement and continuing throughout, for example, retiring concertmaster Glenn Dicterow played numerous solos with beautiful conviction and amazing grace. Similarly, the offstage posthorn solo—played wonderfully by principal trumpet Philip Smith—added a flavor of ineffable longing, another familiar Mahler trope.

The human voice entered in the fourth movement, with mezzo Bernarda Fink singing Nietzche's dark "Oh Mensch" ("Oh man, you lie in direst need") from Also sprach Zarathustra. Fink sang it beautifully, followed by the seemingly ubiquitous Brooklyn Youth Chorus' "Bim Bam Bim Bam" introduction to a poem from Das Knaben Wunderhorn in the fifth movement, joined by the women of the New York Choral Artists.

And then the grand finale, the beautiful love hymn that comprises the sixth and final movement. Haitink conducted this, and the Philharmonic played it, pretty much to perfection. Beginning in the lower strings, the lengthy movement gained in intensity, as controlled by the great Maestro. Haitink let the faint echoes of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde glow through like rhapsodic embers. The movement ended in a galvanized peroration of ecstatic love, after which an immediate and intense standing ovation was rewarded by numerous curtain calls.

Footnote: A cell phone rang right behind me near the end of the final movement, where the music almost disappears into wisps of pianissimo string tremolos. There has been a seeming epidemic of cell phone ringing in New York concerts lately, which leads me to believe that venues should require devices to be surrendered to the ushers on entrance—like guns in the saloons of the old West.