This is an exceptional Mahler 3rd. Having compared a dozen CDs before writing this review, I can attest it displaces a lot of the suggested recordings over the years and it is definitely better played than most. Of course Haitink has recorded this work at least four times in the past and he seems to know the score inside-out. True, this is one of the very few recordings where every single detail is captured vividly (with a minor exception that I will explain later). The playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra outshines most world-class orchestras and is full of rustic character.
Taking each movement individually, the massive first movement is measured, taken at a slower tempo than usual. But this allows for more gravitas and more refined and memorable playing from the horns and the brass instruments in particular. One could argue that Haitink could use a little bit more momentum in the closing bars but this approach makes sense later on, when the architecture of the whole symphony is revealed. The second movement is played with all the charisma one would expect from Haitink, but if one really wants to sample this new recording the Comodo third movement would be the best place to start.
From the opening bars to the explosive finale, the atmosphere the conductor and his Bavarian forces generate is full of mystery. The offstage posthorn has rarely been captured so effectively in conveying a sense of discovery. Indeed, this is one of the most magical renditions of this movement.
As for Nietzsche’s setting in the fourth movement, contralto Gerhild Romberger seems to be perfectly suited for the role, her voice rich but subdued when needed, dark and mysterious, nearly sensual, digging deep into Nietzsche’s existential depths.
The tubular bells in the fifth movement, again performed and recorded in exemplary fashion, introduce the famous bim-bam theme and the German children’s and women’s choirs sings with plenty of character. Haitink does not forget that this is not just a merry affair by bringing out the keck im Struck elements.
And this brings us to the finale: The holy grail of the symphony and one of the most sublime things Mahler ever composed. As one would expect from the conductor’s earlier efforts, this is exceptional stuff. Gorgeous string playing, horns blazing throughout and a really breathtaking brass chorale leading to the majestic conclusion. Unlike Abbado and the recent Fischer recording, Haitink does not stand back and he gives us a no holds barred thrilling account with prominent timpani playing, and holding the glorious fermata well before its closing catharsis.
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So then, is this the ideal recording? It could well be! My only reservation is the underpowered percussion in the finale of the third movement where the tam-tam is a bit underwhelming. However, since this is a common problem for numerous recordings, it shouldn’t really be a big deal at all. And having compared this Haitink performance to the great recordings of Bernstein, Abbado, Horenstein, the recent Fischer, Nott and Honeck, I could easily place it nearly at the top of the list (along with Chailly which, for me, is pretty much faultless and possibly one of the most engaging performances, not forgetting of course Hatink’s first version which shares the same qualities).
The BR recording is of demonstration standards and one could easily follow the score, the instruments are captured that clear with just enough reverb. The real stars are of course are the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra whose rustic, characterful playing is second to none and of course Haitink, a composer who seems to love this work. Indeed the present recording presents an ideal distillation of Haitink’s lifetime experience of this symphony and should become a reminder of a great recording tradition.
Mahler, Symphony 3
Bernard Haitink (conductor) / Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Gerhild Romberger (Mezzosoprano)
Augsburger Domsingknaben (Director: Reinhard Kammler)
Frauenchor Des Bayerischen Rundfunks (Director: Yuval Weinberg)