In old recordings and new, Haitink shows great talent

August 28, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Brahms, Symphonies Nos. 1-4, Serenades in D and A, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture and Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3 and 10, performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, )R Bernard Haitink, conductor (Philips 442 068-2). Bruckner, Symphonies Nos. 0-9, performed by the Concertgebouw and Haitink (Philips 442 040-2). Mahler, Symphonies Nos. 1-9 and the Adagio in F-sharp minor from Symphony No. 10, performed by the Concertgebouw and Haitink (Philips 442 050-2). Mahler, Symphony No. 2 ("Resurrection"), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, Haitink conducting with soprano Sylvia McNair, contralto Jard van Nes and the Ernst-Senff Choir (Philips 438 935-2). Schumann, Symphonies Nos. 1-4, performed by the Concertgebouw and Haitink (442 079-2).

These discs, recorded over a 30-year period, demonstrate that Bernard Haitink, albeit the least flashy of conductors, is a very great conductor indeed. The mid-priced box sets (about $10 per individual disc) of the symphonies and orchestra works by Brahms, the Bruckner symphonies, the Mahler symphonies and the Schumann symphonies collect the work Haitink did in the '60s and early '70s -- the early years of his music directorship of the great Concertgebouw.

Philips is issuing them so cheaply because Haitink is in the final stage of recording a new Mahler cycle (with the Boston Symphony), a new Bruckner cycle (with the Vienna Philharmonic), and a new Mahler cycle (with the Berlin Philharmonic). A new Schumann cycle has not been announced, but it's hard to imagine Haitink resisting an opportunity to return to those works.

Are these older recordings, therefore, in the process of being superseded? Hardly. Except for the relatively dull, sober Schumann set, these older records can be recommended to anyone seeking to collect these masterworks conveniently and at a reasonable price. Haitink's straightforward conducting has always paid huge dividends in the super-heated symphonies of Mahler, and this set -- it does not include the conductor's later digital recordings with the Concertgebouw -- remains among the best.

All the performances are fine, but particularly superb is a Symphony No. 4 (with the young Elly Ameling as the radiant soloist), which captures to perfection the fresh, wide-eyed simplicity of the music.

It's a pleasure to report, however, that Haitink's new Mahler No. 2 does supersede the old one. This is the first performance in the new Berlin cycle that matches or surpasses the conductor's work in Amsterdam. This is a slower, more committed performance that reveals more details within individual phrases and evinces a grasp of those details commanding enough to place them in the work's giant scheme. The huge rallentando (slowing down) at the end of the funereal first movement, much more emphatic here than in the conductor's earlier recordings, expresses an elemental confrontation with suffering more wrenching than anything the conductor has previously achieved this music. This performance is much more interesting than the surprisingly dull one -- relatively speaking -- that Claudio Abbado recently recorded with the same Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. (Abbado's old version with the Chicago Symphony, still available at mid-price on DG, was terrific -- marked by concentration, intensity and conviction.) Haitink's soloists are terrific, and the Philips engineers are able to capture the details -- including some breathtaking pianissimos from the chorus -- that Haitink has worked so hard to realize.

Haitink's view of the Brahms symphonies is broad, imposing in weight and prevailingly serious. But this does not mean that the humor in such works as the sunny Symphony No. 2, the Academic Festival Overture or the Hungarian Dances escapes him. From the beginning of his career, Haitink has always been an eloquent champion of Bruckner, and this set is mostly fine and sometimes magnificent. The two best performances may be the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6, but the early symphonies have rarely been done as well, and Haitink is scarcely a slouch in such behemoths as Nos. 5, 7, 8 and 9.

HEAR THE MUSIC

To hear the scherzo of Bruckner's Symphony No. 9, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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