Bernard Haitink; photo by Todd Rosenberg

On Thursday night, Bernard Haitink conducted the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Third Symphony. The veteran Dutchman is one of the great inconsistent conductors, I believe—almost up there with Lorin Maazel and Valery Gergiev. I have heard pantheonic performances from him and total eggs. 

I remember one Bruckner Eighth in particular. This was with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2003. (Google is an indispensable aid here.) The performance was great, and Haitink knew it, too. As he walked off the stage, he pumped his arms. This surprised and tickled me: I always figured him for a stolid Dutchman.

Four years later, he again conducted the BPO at the Easter Festival, this time in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. I had not thought it possible for this immortal work to be so dull, uninspired, and limp. The performance was impressive, in a way—something for Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

(I wrote about these two very different evenings here and here. These links are provided for those who may want brief walks down Memory Lane.)

Back to New York. To conduct the Mahler Third—the longest symphony, I believe, as well as one of the greatest—Haitink sat down. This got me to thinking: Whom did I first see sit down? It was Stoki, I’m pretty sure. The sight startled me. (The conductor was in his nineties at the time, I believe.) Eventually, Wolfgang Sawallisch sat down. Of course, James Levine started to sit early (and the opera pit is another question).

In Mahler’s first movement—or Part I, if you like—it seemed that Haitink would have one of his great nights. He was full of beans. He conducted as though his life depended on it. The New York Philharmonic was utterly responsive to him. Not often have I heard this orchestra so vital, so committed to the task at hand. (Not often in recent seasons, I should say.) The horns were on their best behavior. What was this, Christmas? The concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow, played his solo music well. His sweetness is an asset here. Mahler even requires a touch of syrup.

Overall, the playing in Part I was a little rough and loud. A little rude and bombastic (where rudeness and bombast are not called for, I mean). Our Philharmonic really can’t caress you the way the BPO can, or the VPO, or the RCO. (Those last two ensembles are the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.) Elegance is probably not an NYP hallmark. But even if you didn’t care for the playing in Part I, by golly there was musical life there. Beating hearts and minds.

Now to Part II, which gives us movements 2 to 6. The second movement, Tempo di minuetto, was good enough, but lacking in suavity. The third movement was good enough, too—but slightly rushed, contrary to Mahler’s explicit instruction. It was also slightly unsavored and unlilting. And the fourth movement, with its Nietzsche song?

On walked Bernarda Fink, the divine mezzo-soprano from Argentina. She is one of the greatest singers of our age. I’m not sure she has ever sung a proper recital in New York. Years ago, I heard her in Alice Tully Hall, I think, with a German period band, singing Bach. Well, Fink was singing: The band was squawking, scratching, and squealing, the way they do. I have never heard such a stark aural example of Beauty and Beast.

In any case, Fink sang Mahler’s music sublimely, purely, sincerely. You expect no less of her. But the voice is rather small now—probably too small for the part—and Haitink did nothing to accommodate her, so far as I could tell. The orchestra drowned her out. Bernarda Fink is maybe the last person you’d want to drown out.

The fifth movement is the Christmassy one (speaking of Christmas). It involves a children’s chorus, and these children, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, had been sitting on the stage for a long, long time. They were not quite ready to sing. The movement as a whole should have been crisper and more delightsome. Also more dramatic. It occurred to me that Maestro Haitink might be running out of steam, after that magnificent, hell-for-leather beginning.

Is there anything more wonderful than the last movement? Except for all the other movements in Mahler? I have another question: Do you know what it is to “telegraph” passes in basketball? You signal (unintentionally) that you’re going to pass to someone, making it easier for defenders to thwart you. In this last movement, Haitink “telegraphed” his crests, climaxes, and “special” moments. The music suffered from overcalculation. It was not fully—pardon the cliché—organic. The music left me unmoved, I’m afraid, and there is hardly more moving music.

I grant that it may have been my mood, and that others may have levitated. At any rate, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 is one of the greatest things in art. And Bernard Haitink is one of our most treasured conductors.

Incidental intelligence (as the treasurable critic Martin Bernheimer would say): The actor Alec Baldwin recorded the announcement that the Philharmonic uses, reminding people to turn off their cellphones. Recently, the audience has hissed and booed. I wrote about this for National Review Online, here.

UPDATE: As I have been reminded, Bernarda Fink has indeed given recitals in New York—including one I reviewed, here. Was she forgettable? No. All fault lies with the forgetter.

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