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Rockin' Our Turntable: CSO's Mahler 2

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 23, 2009 5:20PM

2009_12_23_CSOMahler.jpg We first listened to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's new Bernard Haitink-led recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 the day after the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's mind-blowing performance at Symphony Center. Hearing the CSO's bursting-from-its-seams sound immediately following the BPO's seemingly-effortless control and brilliant warmth - would that we could bathe in it! - was a jarring experience. And we loved it.

Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, being personally religious rather than about Christianity, is highly emotional and, like most of Mahler's works, full of extremes, both tangible (texture, volume, mood) and thematic (the hour and twenty-two minute symphony begins with a funeral rite and ends with a voyage to eternal life). Mahler's music, and particularly this piece, plays to the CSO's strengths of heart-on-its-sleeve performances and a dynamic range as wide as that of any orchestra.

That being said, the recording has its ups and downs. The first movement is exciting, although also sloppy at times, with some disagreement among musicians about note length, occasionally clipped phrases, and odd transitions. Contradictorily, one of these sections was also one of our favorites: the dissonant, unspeakably loud climax where the music descends into the grave. While it feels like it comes out of nowhere, Haitink's drastic slowing of the tempo draws out the agony of death and Mahler's despair about its inevitability. We wish Haitink would revel in Mahler's overwhelming fear - which makes up almost the entire Allegro maestoso - a bit more.

But as the music settles down and becomes more optimistic over the remaining movements, the performance evens out, with a lyrical reading of the Andante and a flowing scherzo. The brightest spot of the recording is the Urlicht ("Primordial Light") introduction to the titanic last movement and the choral finale itself. All the vocalists - soloists soprano Miah Persson and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn, and, in particular, the CSO Chorus - shine. Interestingly, once the vocalists arrive on the scene, everything becomes perfectly balanced. Not only has Haitink properly assembled his palette, his use of the mass of musicians to paint Mahler's ascendance to heaven is masterful. In particular, the Dies Irae low brass/contrabasoon chorale is immaculate, building to an interpretation of the following horn-driven section that's as soaring as any we've heard. As in the first movement, we'd prefer more savagery in the subsequent "march of the dead" section, but it's still riveting, and Haitink's build through the symphony's conclusion is broad without being plodding, creating a rich, enveloping sound.

In the end, the reason why we love this recording of Mahler 2 isn't because it's a great version, although it is. We love it because it's unmistakeably the CSO. If there's any doubt of the orchestra's identity after the opening movement's first tutti fortissimo passage body slams you, the pristine, impossibly quiet clarinet duet a few minutes later clinches it. The Berlin Philharmonic might've swept us away that November night, but our hearts remain with our home orchestra. Such a quintessential recording serves as a valuable historical marker, falling as it does in between music director tenures. We look forward to re-examining Haitink's Mahler 2 after Riccardo Muti gets his hands on the CSO full time next fall.