I have something of a love hate relationship with Bernard Haitink. Actually, that's probably a little unfair, it's never quite as bad as hate, more just leaving me cold. His work with the LSO is typical of this - a superb Brahms second on LSO Live, but the rest of the cycle a little disappointing; a disc of Beethoven's fourth and eighth symphonies that ranks amongst my absolute favourite Beethoven recordings, but the remainder of the cycle never really catches fire for me.
So too his Mahler. Here I tend to find an odd division, so to speak. The odd numbered symphonies normally come out very well indeed: his recordings of the third are especially fine, both his early Concertgebouw reading and also the superb live(ish) Chicago account, even if it does use a trumpet instead of a horn. On the other hand, he often seems underpowered in the even ones, the second and eighth especially and I found his recent Chicago sixth very dull. Too often, in Mahler and elsewhere, I find I just want more raw emotion (but then, as a fan of the likes of Bernstein and Giulini, that perhaps is unsurprising).
So, as a Mahler fanatic, his Prom of the ninth symphony was a must hear. As an odd number, history was on Haitink's side that I would enjoy it. And, for the most part, I very much did.
Many performances of the ninth suffer from what I like to call Mahler Nine Syndrome - wherein the first movement particularly sounds like a series of totally unconnected miniatures (Siblius seven is very susceptible to this too). What's interesting is that in a good performance, I can never understand how a bad performance achieves this effect, so compelling is the flow. Haitink was free from any trace of this problem.
His reading was not too overwrought, no Bernstein/Concertgebouw here. It had the deliberate and somewhat methodical approach that always seems to be a Haitink hallmark (and the main reason I don't always get on with him). And yet, there was plenty of weight to the climaxes. The orchestra's playing was very good too, bringing out some very nice textures.
It was a slowish reading, with the first movement weighing in just shy of thirty minutes, putting it nearly as slow as that late Bernstein (though still some way off Sinopoli's live Dresden account). While it did feel slightly ponderous towards the end of the opening movement, it did so without dragging.
The start of the second movement had less bounce than I would prefer, feeling a little on the soporific side, but it picked up very well as the movement progressed and by the end Haitink's reading was extremely compelling.
The third movement was excellent with no shortage of a sense of the macabre and building to a suitably mad close.
The finale was close to faultless. Again, on the slow side, but beautifully compelling and lacking nothing for emotional impact. All in all, then, Haitink near his best, both with the LSO and Mahler. It makes me a little sad that Mills doesn't programme more Mahler in Edinburgh.
I was listening on the BBC's iPlayer service (and those in the UK still have until Monday evening to catch it). Sound is fairly decent, and certainly now listenable (unlike in the old Realplayer days). And yet, given you can watch TV programmes in HD and download them to your hard disk for a month, I can't help but feel that we radio listeners get short changed. I know it's all a fear of piracy - and yet I already own seventeen or so recordings of the work, so I don't think the record industry has too much to worry about. Surely CD quality sound wouldn't break the bank...... Why don't the BBC give up on DAB as a bad job and put the money into high quality online radio.