For about a century the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra has rested in its niche as one of the world's half dozen or so grandest ensembles. And there it remains today, as we heard last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Few orchestras on tour would dare play last night's program. It was Mahler's Seventh Symphony -- no more, no less. The Seventh is the least known of the nine symphonies; it is also the most elusive in content; and it may very well be the hardest to play.
This is high-risk programming. If the audience is going to be thrilled -- as they expect to be by the Concertgebouw -- the performance must be sensational, because the Seventh's natural appeal is not enough to carry the day. I guess last night's audience was thrilled, because immediately following the herculean symphony's final, and brilliant, triple fortissimo chord in C major, the listeners leapt to their feet cheering as if they had been shot out of ejection seats.
The Concertgebouw's music director, Bernard Haitink, is one of the foremost Mahler conductors and by this point in their tour their mastery of the work's complexities is spectacular.
For instance, the brass fanfares in the exultant last movement are incredibly hard to play without either some uncertainty or stridency. Last night they were tossed off like "Chopsticks."
That brass section, by the way, may be the finest in the world. It doesn't play as loud as Berlin's or Chicago's, but the restraint gives the Concertgebouw the advantage of greater agility and buoyancy. And its pristine purity is a wonder. The silvery ping of the first trumpet when playing solo was practically seraphic.
The Seventh is notoriously difficult for the interpreter. Tempi must be precisely judged, and kept exactly steady, or the symphony tends to fall apart. This, in fact, is what happens most of the time, partly because the Seventh has less of Mahler's normal driving force to unite it naturally. As to Haitink's interpretation, this listener has heard only two others -- Bernstein's and Tennstedt's -- that worked so well.
It should not be forgotten that the Concertgebouw is the ensemble now threatened with a 20-percent cut in membership by the current Netherlands government. Well, that certainly is one way to save money. By that rationale, one might also go across the park in front of the Concertgebouw to Amsterdam's magnificent art gallery, the Rijksmuseum, and blow up one of the wings. That would save money on maintenance. But the Rembrandts should be saved, because they would be worth a fortune if some bureaucrat decided to sell them.