Prom 5: LSO / Haitink - Royal Albert Hall, 20 July 2009
This year's Proms line-up doesn't exactly thrill me to the core of my being, the first month especially.
But I couldn't pass up the opportunity to hear Mahler's 9th conducted by one of his greatest interpreters, Bernard Haitink, and performed by the mighty LSO. Even though it cost a massive £19 for an unspectacular seat behind the orchestra. Around this time of year newspapers often spout about how cheap and brilliant arena promming is (from the comfort of their freebie best seats in the house). Perhaps they don't realise that for popular concerts like this, especially with an early start time, you're simply not going to get in unless you spend most of the afternoon queuing. (And even then you're going to be standing up for an hour and a half while the odours of sock, sandal and anorak waft beneath your nostrils, but I digress). A costly seat is unfortunately the only option.
The last time I heard this symphony was in Berlin, where Daniel Barenboim, on a rare off-day, flayed it to a bleeding pulp. The ever-refined Haitink, leaning on a stool after his recent back operation and conducting with a considered physical economy, could not have been more different.
A spirit of discovery pervaded the first movement right from the primordial emergence of the first sparing notes. Questions were asked objectively and answered unsentimentally, the LSO (strings especially) demonstrating taut control and unity of purpose. Even the second movement's rustic ländler, marked sehr derb (very coarse) maintained a languid distance. The temperature warmed in the third movement's febrile rondo, its exposed groupings demonstrating the strength in depth of each section of the orchestra. Everything came together in a finale of monumental fragility, a matchstick cathedral of sound that ended not with despair or even resignation, but a feeling of renewal that paralleled the work's opening.
No visceral thrills and no tugged heartstrings - Haitink elevated this already magisterial work to the realm of the spiritual.
Have we heard the Prom of the Season already?