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"MAHLER KERSTMATINEES"

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D (Rec. 1977). Symphony No. 2 in C Minor "Resurrection" (1984). Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (1983). Symphony No. 4 in G (1982). Symphony No. 5 in C# Minor (1986). Symphony No. 7 in E Minor (1985). Symphony No. 9 in D (1987). Songs of a Wayfarer (1978). Excerpts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1981).
Maria Ewing, sop.(No. 4), Roberta Alexander, sop. (No. 2), Jard van Nes, alto (No. 2), Carolyn Watkinson, alto (No. 3), Benjamin Luxon, br. (Wayfarer), Tom Krause, br. (Wunderhorn), Noord-Hollands Jongenskoor, Groot Omroepkoor.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond.

PHILIPS DUTCH MASTERS 50 (9 CDs) (ADD/DDD) (B) TT: 9 hours 25 min.

A remarkable collection!  Here we have seven of Mahler's symphonies all recorded during Christmas Day concerts in Amsterdam's Concertgebouw with Bernard Haitink conducting. Apparently there is a tradition in Holland to have special concerts on Christmas Day, although little is said about this in the accompanying pamphlet. Performances were recorded from 1977 through 1987; dates are indicated in the above listings of the symphonies.  Symphony No. 6 is not included perhaps because there is a live recording of it (July 11, 1968) included in the 14-CD set issued to commemorate Haitink's 70th birthday).  Symphony No. 8 is the only one not now available in a live performance.

The pamphlet discusses at length the difference between Haitink's live performances and commercial recordings of the Mahler symphonies, some of which he recorded twice. And this is a point well taken. Repeatedly, Haitink's live performances and broadcasts have been more intense than his recordings. His recent Mahler recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic are a case in point: beautifully played, but subdued almost to the point of boredom. In these live performances there is a sense of occasion and risk-taking not to be heard in Haitink's recordings. By the time these were recorded Haitink had conducted these works many times; he knows them inside out. The pamphlet states, "Haitink...has never tried to sweep under the carpet his fear of Mahler and of the outbursts of unapproachable fury found in his music." Listening to these superb performances one never would suspect that fear is a part of Haitink's makeup. Just listen to the bold opening of Symphony No. 5, or the demonic intensity of the finale of Symphony No. 7. Haitink is said to be particularly proud of the performance of Symphony No. 9, which was his last appearance as musical director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Christmas Day 1987. An appendix in the pamphlet gives playing time for each movement of symphonies 2, 3, 7 and 9 in Haitink's recordings with various orchestras including the Christmas Day performances (it is not explained why only these symphonies were selected for this documentation), and this shows Haitink was quite consistent so far as playing time is concerned with the exception of the Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 which takes 11:06 in this Concertgebouw performance, four minutes longer in Haitink's Berlin recording. (Incidentally, Willem Mengelberg's 1926 recording of this is but 7:04!).

 The Concertgebouw Orchestra (now Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) is at its best throughout, particularly the brass. Vocal soloists are first-class with one exception: Benjamin Luxon has some pitch problems in his singing of the Wayfarer songs. Tom Krause is in top form in the four Wunderhorn excerpts; why are there only four?

Fortunately all of these performances are magnificently recorded. The Dutch Radio did the engineering and accomplished their task superbly. The Concertgebouw Orchestra is heard in all of its resplendent glory. Balances are ideal (except for vocal soloists in Symphony No. 2, who are a bit too close). You will hear orchestral detail not to be found in the Philips commercial recordings of this music, and extraordinary low bass. What a pleasure to hear such sonorous cellos and double-basses! And there is no lack of high frequencies; cymbals sizzle. Spars codes on the CD box indicates that some of the recordings are digital, but which ones are not specified. It doesn't matter - the analog sound is so outstanding.  There is an extraneous low-frequency sound at 14:04 into the final movement of Symphony No. 7.

 Layout of music in this set is not ideal. Symphony No. 7 could have fit on a single CD; here the last movement is on another disk. Symphony No. 2 should not have a break after the alto solo; the tumultuous scherzo should follow instantly but, as laid out on these CDs, one must go to the next CD. But these are insignificant debits considering the treasures to be found in this set.

These performances are identified as Eurovision Christmas Matinée Concerts. I have seen  a BBC telecast of Symphony No. 3 which probably is the same performance as the one just issued on CD. With the enormous interest today in quality videos/DVD perhaps these superlative Haitink performances will also be issued in that format.  This set generally is not available in the U.S.  It can obtained from:  info@kuijperklassiek.nl NOTE: Since writing the above, these Mahler recordings have been issued in a magnificent set of four DVDs, in surround sound. And it is extraordinary to watch Haitink conduct this music so close to him: see REVIEW

R.E.B. (Oct. 2000)