Performers: Sylvia McNair, soprano/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Bernard Haitink
Studio: Philips DVD 074 3133 (Distrib. Universal)
Video: 4:3 Color
Audio: DTS 5.1; PCM Stereo
Length: 140 minutes
It was a performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw on Philips that I, Richard Kapp, and Robert Jacobson auditioned on First Hearing back on 9 February 1984, my premier appearance on that esteemed radio program. I recall how Haitink’s severe, almost metronomic precision imposed a rigorous austerity on the otherwise inflammatory figures in Mahler. Now, auditioning these May 1992 (Seventh) and December 1991 (Fourth) readings from the Schauspielhaus, Berlin – part of Haitink’s Mahler cycle, I can detect a softening in his approach, which still remains lustrous and polished in all parts, but the rhythmic licenses permit his refinement a 19th Century urbanity which was before absent. As directed by Barrie Gavin, the camera work moves to the orchestration of every bar – following, in the G Major, the opening percussion and strings, to the clarinets, oboes, cellos, and tympani. To see the lineup of French horns, Wagner-style, is always impressive. The music is rife with allusions to the composer’s own Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection. Haitink’s expressive face conducts the orchestra as much as his baton hand, and he squeezes an impassioned crescendo with his left hand just as solo violin and bassoon coalesce before the recapitulation. The coda enjoys a spectacular diminuendo before the rush to judgment.
Extremely lithe camera movement for the C Minor Scherzo, moving from flutes to horns to scordatura solo violin. Haitink takes the first F Major trio broadly; then the sarcasm of the dance of death resumes, with wonderful clarity between horns, harp, oboes, and violins. The second trio in F moves to an impassioned, rustically rapturous D Major episode. Move from the piccolo to the soft drum beats as the atmosphere thins out, even as the sinister elements assert themselves in the midst of bucolic simplicity. Sylvia McNair now appears just before the huge G Major Ruhevoll, poco adagio, whose mighty progression is to a colossal E Major vision of Paradise. Haitink permits any number of slides and portamento to infiltrate the progressive, variation line, the oboe’s minor coloring a lonely wanderer in the cosmos. The bassoon assumes the same melancholy, lonely role. Wonderful luftpausen in the string line, silky smooth. Interplay among strings and winds. Sylvia McNair projects a warm, voluptuous innocence, singing of heavenly slaughter and the orchestra captures their terror. All in Technicolor E Major, and distilled with gossamer articulation in winds, strings, and finally, harp.
The 1908 Seventh Symphony has long remained an anomaly among the Mahler nine: whimsical, amorous, flamboyant, grotesque, Herculean, it tries to resolve any number of contradictions in its own autobiographical character. Inspired by his several sojourns to the Tyrolean Alps, Mahler incorporates rhythms and rustic sounds characteristic of the region. A healthy, vigorous optimism permeates the score, which is hugely mounted. We see Haitink at the helm of a colossal array of colors, which oddly enough, rarely play tutti–instead, Mahler savors all kinds of color combinations between tubas and strings, oboes and trumpets, mandolin, two harps, guitar; weird rhythmic configurations juxtapose fierce marches with limpid mountain airs. To watch three trombones play unisono is a rarity. Often, the camera captures Haitink’s profile just to his right shoulder and then to the empty, black space behind him, a kind of Carl Sagan moment. The camera goes behind the tuba and into the other brass. The strings answer in terms Egon Schiele would appreciate, angular and expressionistic. A disembodied triangle sets off another martial excursion in motley. “Here Nature roars,” quipped Mahler.
The first of the two Nachtmusiks, in C, has a decidedly alpine sensibility. Whirlings and gurglings emanate from winds, brass, and odd percussion instruments. The French horns assert their hegemony in venues mountainous. Haitink’s tempo is rather brisk; a real swagger manages to emerge from the basses and tympani. The A-flat cello episode is Berlin Philharmonic cream. When the camera draws back for a full medium shot, we witness just how massive are the forces involved. Bassoons, harps, and tympani contribute to the eeriness of the occasion, the sultry lilt of the episodes. The energy level rises again, but now we are inside a grotesque Viennese café or brothel where Marlene Dietrich rules The Blue Angel. Life and the music march on, glibly unconcerned with our prejudices. Haitink’s left arm and flexible baton lean into the sarcastic Scherzo, whose middle section presents a mellow viola to interrupt the weird, macabre dance, a fin-de-siecle evocation of past Viennese glory. Many of the pointillistic effects in viola, tympani, and brass will provide fodder for the likes of Schoenberg, Krenek, and Webern.
The Andante amoroso in F combines motifs from violin, oboe and horn with a guitar which plays a version of a tune from the finale of the A Minor Sixth Symphony. Flutes and mandolin extend the serenade; then the solo violin and clarinet, the camera’s tracing the colors until a left-side pan gives us a tutti shot then back to winds and mandolin. A harp solo and oboe-horn responsory, the violin solo, each provides a tiny oasis in the midst of a chromatic, aimless passion. With the tympani flourish followed by horns, the Rondo-Finale asserts a vital C Major energy. A curious form, the movement combines sonata-allegro and variation techniques, a series of eight episodes with its own variant. Austrian laendler, Wagner, even Lehar pass in affectionate review and parody. The sheer intensity of the woodwinds’ trills warrants honorable mention. A testament to the cosmic diversity of Life, the music conveys the paradoxical ecstasy in Mahler’s sound universe.
— Gary Lemco