Haitink, Philharmonic find deep reflection in Mahler’s Third

Fri May 16, 2014 at 1:23 pm
Bernard Haitink led the New York Philharmonic in Mahler's Symphony No. 3 Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall.

Bernard Haitink led the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 Thursday night at Avery Fisher Hall.

At over an hour and a half, Mahler’s Third Symphony is one of those works that falls squarely into “marathon” category as opposed to “sprint.” The latter movements get away from the solemn, dogged feel of the first, but the music only rarely bursts with exuberance.

That is not to say that this is a symphony of little variety. The Third covers a staggeringly vast territory, moving through diverse and richly evocative colors, characters, and scenes. At Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday, led by the venerable Bernard Haitink, the New York Philharmonic strode through Mahler’s thick music with purpose.

The first movement opened with authority, the brass booming over creaks of percussion. This season the musicians of the Philharmonic have at times sounded either complacent or disinterested, failing to make full use of their enormous abilities. In this movement the orchestra seemed to need a bit of coaxing, especially in the early going, but once they hit their stride, there was a clear sense that the players felt they were engaged in something important. They approached the fog-of-war uncertainty of the first movement with grim determination.

There was foreboding tension in the soft playing of the strings, a sense of grand forces at play even when volume was at a low. Glenn Dicterow approached his solos with grace, and Haitink allowed the concertmaster great freedom. The ensuing Minuetto lilted sweetly, blooming at some moments and glistening at others. Like the first, it wandered, but was never lost, having the floating but intense quality of a particularly vivid dream.

The third movement had a full, fleshy sound facilitated by an intense tone from the strings, but the scherzando sections lacked bite. Dynamic shifts were clear and effective, and transitions from one section to the next were seamless. As before, there was a sense that the orchestra was truly playing in concert, listening intently and responding to each other. There were still odd moments of sloppiness here and there, ensemble muck-ups and some ugly blats from the brass. These were easily forgotten after the sublime posthorn solos from Matthew Muckey, gauzy and pleading.

The fourth movement (Sehr langsam) seemed to lurk in, beginning in a haze that opened up into a magnificent feeling of endless space. The reverent calm was occasionally interrupted by more sour sounds from the brass, but on the whole Haitink wove a deep, velvet bed.

Mezzo-Soprano Bernarda Fink sang her part with searing emotion, making a pleading and unimposing entrance, but still feeling secure, delivering in the opening repetition of “O Mensch” two notes full of vocal color and expressive weight. At times she displayed almost a lyric tone to accompany her full, muscular chest voice.

Fink also showed intimate connection to the text and to the chorus (the clear, bright-voiced Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the women of New York Choral Artists), engaging in passionate dialogue with them in the fifth movement. Here the winds could have used more bounce as they played off of the ringing percussion and the bell sounds of the children’s choir.

The orchestral finale showed echoes of the first, with a yearning hush that began with tender warmth and grew to searing heat. As much as anywhere else in this performance, here Haitink and the Philharmonic displayed deep emotional expressiveness, alternating between grief and acceptance, and finally resolving through grand and sweeping gestures into a warm, enduring embrace.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Avery Fisher Hall. nyphil.org.

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