Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam brought two masterpieces on their latest visit to Washington, Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Haydn's 88th Symphony -- tiny, elegant, bubbling with wit and melody, provided (at least in theory) an ideal contrast for Mahler's brilliant, gigantic, darkly brooding Symphony No. 5. Both works were performed with a polished technique that brought the audience to its feet at the end of the concert with "bravos" ringing out before the final chord had faded into memory.
It was magnificent, of course. Particularly magnificent was the sheer sound of this great orchestra -- a rich sound, deeply textured and precisely balanced, with all sections in perspective but individual strands rising to the surface on demand. It is precisely the right sound for a Mahler symphony. The Concertgebouw's ensemble playing was always precise, its dynamics beautifully controlled. It responded to Haitink's baton with an almost instinctive rapport based on long association. The problems in Saturday's concert were problems not of technique but of interpretation.
They were also slight and subtle -- more perceptible in the Haydn than in the Mahler, though essentially the same problem for both composers. Judged on the highest level of musicianship, which is where the Concertgebouw's status and ticket price require it to be judged, the concert showed an extraordinary level of technique but a rather cool detachment from the music.
The Haydn received a virtuoso treatment -- fast and brilliant, crisp, clean-lined and energetic. It went off like clockwork, and that works well enough in Haydn, but the music is capable of saying much more.
Mahler has written a lot of his special expressive demands directly into the music, and Haitink followed these instructions exactly, but he stopped there. In a sense, his cool, impersonal treatment is a useful contrast to Leonard Bernstein's approach, which sometimes gravitates toward excess; but always gives at least a sense of intense emotional involvement. A happy medium between these two extremes is possible; it was demonstrated recently in a performance of Mahler's Seventh by David Zinman with the Baltimore Symphony, and we may hope that it is finding other advocates among young conductors for whom Mahler should no longer be an enigma.