Frustrated in their efforts to find an instant replacement for departing music director Daniel Barenboim — likely candidates were either unavailable or not equal to the task — the Chicago Symphony did the next best thing, appointing Bernard Haitink to superintend the orchestra during the interim. It was a cautious but wise decision. After many years as a welcome guest, Haitink had established a rapport with the orchestra. Even his detractors have to admit that he was, and remains, a superb technician. But no one could have foreseen that the 80-year-old conductor would experience a long Indian summer in Chicago, producing four years of glorious music making that would altogether eclipse the previous sixteen seasons under Barenboim.
The reason is not hard to fathom. Barenboim was a charismatic and unpredictable leader who favored a rough, unblended sound. Haitink is his polar opposite: a self-effacing, steady-as-she-goes musician with a sensitive ear for balances. He appeared at just the right moment, for clearly the orchestra was ready for a change. Haitink provided the opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.
No recording does better at capturing that magic than this new Ein Heldenleben. In a sense, Haitink's approach is characteristic, if not predictable. Time and again he resists the temptation to overplay the individual episodes; he gives this sometimes sprawling music a cohesive symphonic structure. Other conductors give us a more cinematic battle scene; but in few if any versions have the closing pages counted for so much. The final apotheosis is all the more involving for having been so carefully prepared. Once again Haitink proves that an objective, undemonstrative approach can be deeply affecting. For those who still believe that Strauss is all about vulgar display, this performance should be required listening.
Throughout, Haitink is able to balance Strauss's plush, saturated orchestral colors with a transparency that registers the smallest detail. The playing is powerful, stirring, but also exact and subtle. The orchestra has always performed superbly for Haitink, but during these past four years their response has been even more intense and concentrated. Here they give the music a nobility of utterance that compels from first note to last. There are many great recordings of Heldenleben, but I can think of only two that are as well played as this: the justly famous 1927 recording by Mengleberg and the New York Philharmonic, and the early stereo version by Fritz Reiner and this same orchestra. Those looking for a modern version of the score in demonstration-quality sound need look no further.
A friend once called Im Sommerwind Webern's "road not taken." Indeed, if you don't already know this undeservedly neglected score, it's surprising to hear the same composer who would soon become famous for his terse, spare musical aphorisms indulging in such lush harmonies and large-scaled gestures. This ten-minute tone poem has the stature of a much longer work. You'll never hear a better performance of it than this one.
Haitink brings a similar set of virtues to his performance of Mahler's epic "Resurrection" Symphony. Tempos are slightly slower than usual, but always supple and expressive. Again Haitink keeps the music moving steadily, resolutely forward, and the final movement has a spiritual grandeur that is deeply impressive. I'm afraid I haven't been able to listen to the "Urlicht" without missing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's transcendent vocal (on the recording by MTT/SFS), but ChristianneStotijn gives the words vibrant, openhearted warmth.
Haitink was never one to exaggerate the emotional character of Mahler's symphonies, but here one feels the tension and immediacy of live performance. There's an added "juice" not heard on either of his two previous recordings. Here again, the orchestra plays magnificently. This is probably the most gorgeous-sounding Mahler Second ever recorded.
Klaus Tennstedt was an inspirational conductor, but not all of his performances were equally inspired. Sometimes the magic was there, sometimes not. Sometimes the orchestras he (mostly guest-) conducted had trouble translating his "lolling, clumsy" gestures into a coherent picture of the music. But if any orchestra "got" Tennstedt, it was the London Philharmonic, where he was the music director for six seasons until serious illness forced him to resign.
In 1989, Tennstedt returned to conduct his former orchestra in performances of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. Seven years earlier Tennstedt had recorded for EMI a studio version of the symphony: a solid but otherwise unremarkable performance. But this live account is something else entirely — the most extreme and risky version of the score I've ever heard. The intensity and drama of the occasion register in every phrase. The musicians knew only too well that the man they had grown to respect and love was fighting a losing battle with the cancer that would eventually kill him, and they played as if their very lives depended on it. Indeed, the sense of a life-or-death struggle in Mahler's score has never been more convincingly realized.
I hasten to add that this performance will not be to everyone's taste. It is, for one thing, unusually slow. Haitink's timings in the first and last movements are 21'12" and 34'33" Tennstedt takes 25' and 38' to travel the same distances. But his slow tempos work to great dramatic effect. Not since Leonard Bernstein's controversial last recording of this score has a conductor so emphasized the convulsive, disruptive nature of the music. Also like Bernstein, Tennstedt's phrasing brings out every expressionistic detail in the score. Sometimes the playing is so intense and extreme that the argument seems on the verge of unraveling altogether. That it never does is no small testimony to Tennstedt's command. Here the finale comes as a hard-won victory, the tragedy lightening only at the "O Glaube, mein Herz."
The playing is sometimes a bit scrappy, but that can happen when musicians spend an entire 90-minute performance on the edges of their seats. The sound cannot compare to the realism and transparency of the CSO Resound, but it's spacious and convincing, an excellent transfer from its in-house source.
I highly recommend the Strauss/Webern disc. For anyone who loves this music, Haitink/CSO will not disappoint. The two "Resurrection" performances couldn't be more different: Haitink's objectivity versus Tennstedt's intense subjectivity. My top shelf now includes Klemperer's classic recording with the Philharmonia and Ivan Fischer's more recent version with his Budapest Festival Orchestra. But I'm thinking I just might be able to find room for the Haitink and the Tennstedt. Why not both?
Haitink CSO "Resurrection" Symphony
Tennstedt LPO "Resurrection" Symphony
Haitink CSO Strauss/Webern