Haitink, BSO offer richly detailed Schubert, Mahler

April 26, 2013 at 3:50 pm

By David Wright

Bernard Haitink conducts the BSO with soprano Camilla Tilling in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Photo: Stu Rosner

Although Gustav Mahler’s scores feature many long and specific verbal instructions, he isn’t known to have written “Contain your enthusiasm” in any of them.

Nevertheless, as a conductor Mahler was famous for discipline and meticulous attention to detail, and in that sense Thursday night’s rather contained performances of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony and Mahler’s Fourth by Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were genuinely Mahlerian.

In particular, the orchestra’s woodwinds had a terrific night, soloing brightly and blending glowingly in the Schubert, and vividly realizing Mahler’s trademark sonic effects from rustic to eerie to satirical.

Thursday’s lineup, featuring one of the 19-year-old Schubert’s happiest inventions and perhaps the most cheerful of Mahler’s symphonies, was the first of two programs evidently meant to end this BSO subscription season on a relaxed and convivial note.

During the bows, the still-music-directorless orchestra gave every indication of being glad to have its Conductor Emeritus back on the podium, as players appreciatively tapped their instruments and received the occasional pat on the shoulder in return as the maestro entered and exited the stage.

There was, inevitably, a “happy to be here” subtext to it all, as bag searches in Symphony Hall’s lobby refreshed memories (which hardly needed refreshing) of recent events at the Boston Marathon.

Still, these were professional musicians, and if the performances onstage showed few signs of giddiness or spring fever, that can be attributed more to the conductor’s style than to the mood outside the hall.

Such modesty of manner needn’t inhibit delight in the music—it may even enhance it. On Thursday night, the Schubert symphony’s very first bars signaled pleasures to come: a caress of woodwind chords, a skitter of violins, a lively theme stated in imitation between high and low strings. As rendered by an ensemble consisting of the prescribed winds plus a small string band, these simple gestures took on the vitality and give-and-take of chamber music.

That feeling suffused the whole first movement. Music analysts like to drone on about the fine points of sonata form, but to hear such an inspired Classical sonata-allegro movement rendered with such skill and grace is to feel in one’s bones what a powerful musical impulse this old form represents.

Themes were clearly contrasted yet flowed naturally into each other, and the same could be said of the orchestra’s sections as they took their turns in the foreground. The development’s combining of themes and dramatic surprises seemed as natural as eddies and rocks in a stream.

It would be hard to imagine a better demonstration of the vitality of the Classical style, or a better rebuke to those conductors and recitalists who have been known to open a program with a careless, trivialized performance of a Classical work.

Haitink wasn’t quite able to sustain this level of execution in the Andante con moto. He took that marking seriously, moving the music along at almost a minuet tempo, but let the rhythm slip a bit, and with it the crisp ensemble of the first movement. But the movement’s rich woodwind playing tended to banish such small criticisms.

Conversely, Haitink held back the tempo somewhat on Schubert’s menuetto-as-scherzo, letting the listener feel the stout three-to-a-bar and savor the details of Schubert’s workmanship. The delicious interplay of the wind instruments raised the trio far above the usual country-bumpkin romp.

The finale, unfortunately, sounded not so much Allegro vivace as just rushed. The details of balance and color that scored so tellingly in the other movements tended to slide by in this competent but slightly helter-skelter performance. One imagines that it would actually have sounded faster if the conductor had taken it a little slower.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony opens wearing a Schubert-like mask of naiveté, both in the simplicity of the themes and the conventionality of their orchestration. By the middle of the first movement, however, Mahler’s peculiar sound-world—acidic, foggy, scintillating, and much else—asserts itself. Haitink and the players adeptly characterized all these states.

The orchestra’s spot-on intonation made the most of Mahler’s lush consonances as well as his harmonic surprises. Haitink’s firm control over the proceedings extended even to the sudden rush of accelerando-crescendo at the movement’s close.

Moderation was also the watchword in the Ländler-style second movement, which stepped along in a gentle triple meter with just glimmers of sarcasm here and there from clarinet, high winds, or muted trumpet. The music was quite eventful below the surface, however, and one could see everything through the clear water of this performance.

The third movement is marked Ruhevoll–literally “full of rest,” but “serene” says it better—and Poco adagio. Haitink’s tempo was more adagio than poco, and yet the feeling wasn’t quite Ruhevoll. Again, one is tempted to attribute the performance’s slight restlessness to events in the news—can anything be quite Ruhevoll in Boston these days?—but more likely it was Haitink’s preference for detail over expansiveness that one was hearing.

And this long, meditative variation movement was indeed lovingly detailed, with many hold-your-breath movements. However, it proved hard to sustain a sense of purpose through so many pages of piano and pianissimo, and the passionate crescendos toward the close gave the music a welcome boost, setting the stage for the high strings’ heavenly coda.

Instead of a conventionally bombastic finale, Mahler closed this symphony with a sophisticated setting of a folk-style poem from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, humorously depicting life in heaven.

Soprano Camilla Tilling struck just the right Mahlerian balance between aria-style vocalizing and recitation of the poem. Her clear and consistent voice, though not loud, was marvelously present in the hall, as ably supported by Haitink and his players. Tilling’s expressive diction and judicious use of vibrato completed a performance that was as straightforward, yet knowing, as this symphony itself.

The performance will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday. bso.org; (617) 266-1200.

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