The 2009-10 season will close Bernard Haitink's five-year tenure as Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as Riccardo Muti becomes Music Director (Yippee!!) in 2010-11). Fans of the orchestra owe Haitink greatly for what he has accomplished. After 15 years under Daniel Barenboim — or, as some of us think of it, the dark ages — the CSO seemed to me to be at a low ebb. Not that they were playing badly — a virtual impossibility with this band — but too often for the last years with Barenboim there were concerts that seemed uninspired, lackluster by the standards established under Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, and Carlo Maria Giulini. Under Haitink's leadership the CSO has regained fully its whiplash ensemble perfection and deep, soulful sonority. Player for player, the orchestra has very likely never had better personnel, and these new releases, like Haitink's previous offerings on the in-house CSO Resound label, are clear testimony to their greatness.
Both of these symphonies are "in the wheelhouse" of both conductor and orchestra. Haitink has championed both composers throughout his career, both in concert and on recordings. CSO Resound already offers an excellent Shostakovich Fifth download with conductor Myun Whun Chung, and the orchestra made some fine Shostakovich recordings in earlier years. Mahler is, of course, a staple of the CSO repertoire, and this recording of the First Symphony follows earlier ones under Giulini, Tennstedt, Solti and Boulez. Of those, Giulini's is my favorite, a very personal, lyrical reading in good '70s sound. But Haitink's has the best sound, and his carefully judged reading is hard to fault.
The Fourth was for too long Shostakovich's lost symphony. When he completed it in 1936, the composer was in the doghouse of the Soviet authorities, who objected to the increasingly modernist, "decadent" tendencies they had already found in the Second and Third Symphonies. Some historians believe that Stalin himself wrote a highly critical piece about the Fourth that appeared in Pravda. The symphony was not performed until 1961, and it may well still be the least known of the composer's symphonies.
And that is a shame — especially when we hear it in a performance like this one. Haitink's profoundly penetrating interpretation makes a strong case for the Fourth as one of the three or four best Shostakovich symphonies. In case we needed any more reasons to deplore the socialist realism imperative that dominated Soviet art for over half a century, the suppression of this masterpiece is a good one!
It has been a while since I heard Haitink's earlier Mahler First recordings, but if memory serves, his approach has remained pretty consistent over the years — slowish tempi, even in the sometimes frenetic finale; beautiful ensemble flow in the strings; and vividly characterized woodwind and brass. It is perhaps not the most viscerally exciting performance, but it holds up extremely well under repeated playings.
As an avid CSO patron, I have heard the preceding concerts of every CSO Resound release so far, and I can testify that these recordings are capturing with admirable accuracy the sound of the orchestra in Symphony Center. Recommendations? Absolutely, especially for the Shostakovich, which has no real competition. I can imagine some listeners preferring alternatives to Haitink's Mahler First, but I don't think you are likely to find one better played or more carefully and consistently interpreted.