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CD Review

Gustav Mahler

Symphony #3 in D minor

Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Children's Choir
Women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
CSO Resound CSOR901701 2CDs
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This is at least Bernard Haitink's fourth Mahler Third, after two excellent versions at the Concertgebouw and one in Berlin. I haven't heard the second and third takes; one is from Christmas concerts and last available as an expensive import, while the Berlin version never gets mentioned favorably. This is in part because the first Concertgebouw version is an absolute stunner. Featuring warm, nay…radiant playing from the great Dutch orchestra, there is no question that it ranks among the greatest accounts of the work ever.

So this one is also quite good, but not at that level. The brass are assertive and well-recorded, but you could conceivably ask for more subtlety. I'm well aware that we're talking Mahler here, but even in a massive brassfest like this work, you do not want to compromise beauty of tone. There is a lack of tonal differentiation, a rather dull color palate that renders the overwhelming virtuosity somewhat less than spectacular. Elsewhere, Haitink fails to capture the glories of his early years with a lack of attention to details. The end result is loud, and only outwardly thrilling. Sampling Bernstein's classic on Sony Classical reveals an equally unsubtle New York Philharmonic, but listen to how much more carefully Lenny builds the music!

There is much to admire here, as the conductor does retain his grasp on the composer's complex structures. I like the character of the winds, something that I found lacking in the same team's Mahler 1st. And although the brass do overpower, there is no denying the excellence on display. On the other hand, Michelle DeYoung really isn't a first choice in this music anymore, which hasn't stopped conductors from working with her; Manfred Honeck made the same choice in his later Pittsburgh recording. The other vocal contributions – perhaps I should say choral – are just fine.

Frankly, I have never fully appreciated Mahler from this orchestra. I generally find that conductors like Solti and now Haitink have been somewhat insensitive to Mahler's sound world. Even Solti's famous Mahler "Symphony of a Thousand" suffers from this problem, being much like this present album in a loud and not always convincing way. Some moments here, like the Finale and parts of the inner movements, do confirm Haitink as a master in this music. The finest Mahler 3rd from this band is from Jean Martinon, found in a giant commemorative box and on YouTube. But assuming you want an actual album, this will fit the bill.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman