Night thoughts on Mahler's Ninth

Night thoughts on Mahler's Ninth


norman lebrecht

July 21, 2009

Watching Bernard Haitink at the BBC Proms last night, I experienced my usual frustration at his suppression of emotional contrast, his flat dynamic line and his fussy accentuation of peripheral detail. There was much to admire, as well, not least the tension that Haitink creates at the opening phrase and sustains to the last.

But in more than thirty years of watching Haitink I have never been convinced by his approach to Mahler and the Ninth he gave last night with the London Symphony Orchestra will not lodge in my memory beside those I have heard from, to name an indelible few, Bernstein, Tennstedt, Solti, Sanderling, Gatti and Rattle. Which may be why I am noting these thoughts in a blog, as a point of reference for the interpretation chapter of my next book on Mahler.

Still, mine is just an individual sensitivity exercised through one pair of ears. Others with me who were hearing the work for the first time were moved. So, too, apparently, were some members of the orchestra.

My eye was caught by the facial expressions of some of the under-utilised players – the E-flat clarinet (Chi-Yu Mo), the principal bassoon (Rachel Gough) and above all, the piccolo player, Sharon Williams.

The piccolo spends much of the first movement perched at the end of a row of hard-working flutes with not much to do except count bars and worry about rising mortgage rates. Most players in these circumstances adopt an attitude of glacial detachment that veers from mild ennui to the characteristic NY Philharmonic grimace of what the heck am I doing here?

Ms Williams, by contrast, seemed completely absorbed in the music, swaying along with the flutes, smiling at the surrounding sounds. It was impossible not to share her pleasure, to be drawn into a performance that was objectively unappealing. Music is an infectious germ. It is so easy to get carried away. 


  • Thanks for notifying us of that programme. I was writing this note listening to the last movement of Mr. Haitink’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony with the LSO. Although I agree with you about the first movement, “Tenderness” in his performance in the 4th movement is something that would be praised. It recalled me of Bernstein’s “Four Ways to Say Farewell” – coicidentally.
    By the way, “Music is an infectious germ.” That is something to be sure.