Coincidentally, the first time I ever heard Mahler's 2nd live was nearly twelve years ago with none other than Bernard Haitink conducting the CSO. Ever since that day, this symphony has been very special to me. (Those concerts marked Haitink's only appearances on the CSO podium punctuating a long period of absence that ended only in March 2006, the season before he became the CSO's Principal Conductor.)
Haitink is a model of artistic consistency. Insofar as his interpretations change over the years, it is more the result of a gradual evolution, of finding details that better clarify the overall idea he seeks to convey, rather than a total radical rethinking of a score. So, what one sees over the course of Haitink's artistic development is more a striving for perfection, a constant revisiting of key works - Haitink has previously recorded Mahler's 2nd at least three times - an unwillingness to settle on a comfortable way of doing things. This attitude has kept Haitink's curiosity alive and his performances fresh.
What has changed over the years is the CSO: it is a far more flexible ensemble today than even twelve years ago, able to produce a greater range of color and dynamic gradation and with more fluidity in phrasing. And that was the true glory of last week's Mahler 2 performances: the combination of a conductor at the peak of his powers, constantly searching for better ways to elucidate Mahler's symphonic structures, and an orchestra that continually redefines the edge of the technically possible in orchestral performance.
The most striking aspect to me of Haitink's current approach to Mahler, as evidenced in his performances with the CSO over the past two seasons, is this organic development of a grand symphonic narrative out of an often understated opening. Many conductors hit you in the face with a very edgy take on the opening bars of symphonies like the 2nd, 3rd or 6th that Haitink has conducted here. Haitink instead takes some of that aggression out, but retains a nervous energy that becomes the seed for a subtle, but relentless, drive toward the ultimate culmination of the musical journey. I have rarely ever heard a performance of a Mahler symphony that was so of one piece.
Haitink and the CSO managed to make the seemingly oversized outer two movements fit seamlessly with the middle three. Particularly noteworthy were the second movement Ländler - in which Haitink found just the right combination of nostalgia and naiveté - as well as the spectacularly transparent Scherzo. And then there was that magnificent development of the finale out of that dies irae that, instead of concluding the traditional way, blossoms into the resurrection. In Christianne Stotijn and Miah Persson Haitink found two soloists who did not treat their appearances as selfish displays of vocal virtuosity, but instead fully blended in with the orchestral and choral fabric of the work. Indeed, both performances I witnessed were showcases of exemplary sectional balancing (including the difficult to calibrate offstage brass!), as well as masterful blending of individual (solo clarinet, oboe, flute & trumpet) and collective textures (brass/woodwinds, brass/chorus/soloists).
These then are the most rewarding kinds of performances for the listener: where the musical journey follows an emotionally compelling arc from beginning to end, yet the intellect discovers numerous new details inspiring a complete reacquaintance with a familiar work, and neither happens at the expense of the other.
Addendum re: Rankings
A small addition to my earlier post on orchestral rankings. Russell Platt at the New Yorker takes issue with Gramophone editor James Inverne's characterization of the CSO's sound. Platt credits the CSO's high ranking in the Gramophone survey to:
the new quality of the C.S.O. itself, a phenomenon attributable to Bernard Haitink’s softening and rounding of the increased vitality and cohesion of sound that his predecessor Daniel Barenboim brought to the group.
Gramophone’s editor, James Inverne, rightly notes the legendary strength of the C.S.O.’s brass section, but that only tells half the story. In the Georg Solti years, the brass section was the equivalent of a Bears offense — hard, insistent, Chicago Way, and most of us thought we’d never hear the end of it. Now, that notoriously restive section has allowed itself to become integrated in a larger, shimmering sound of strings, winds, and percussion, and the result is a jewel beyond price.
I couldn't agree more. I was going to write something similar in my earlier post, but figured I had already wasted enough bandwidth. I will just add one anecdote that proves the point (insofar as anecdotes have any evidentiary value): The other day, an acquaintance was raving about "Haitink's BBC performance of Mahler 6" this past September. When I pointed out that the orchestra in those particular Proms performances was the CSO, the acquaintance replied: "Oh my god, that Proms performance was with the CSO? I thought it was an European ensemble! Never knew CSO had strings with that kind of deep, expressive tone, especially in the andante. I must listen to it again..." (h/t to Andrew Patner for pointing out the Platt post.)