Most successful Mahler Ninths don't fit on a single CD, and Haitink skirts the edge of not succeeding. Perhaps it's not fair to begin this way, since Gergiev also fits his intense, committed Ninth on to a single disc, with a first movement almost identical to Haitink's (27 min.) and an Adagio finale scarcely less fast (24 min.+ compared to Haitink's 23 min.), but the difference in mood is quite marked. Haitink's last movement feels brisker, less probing and moving. The same is true throughout, I think. I've heard him in this score and walked away walking on air. So why does this live performance from Dec. 2011, when Haitink stepped in for an indisposed Mariss Jansons, feel superficial?
It might not to a listener who doesn't hold up Bernstein and Tennstedt as the template for Mahler interpretation. What they both stand for - tempestuous, heartrending music-making - isn't found here. Haitink plays every movement for coolness. He almost stands there and waves his stick, reminding you that a great orchestra like the Bavarian Radio SO, now that we live in an era when the Mahler Ninth is probably more common fare than the Beethoven Ninth, can play the score splendidly on their own. Haitink's stand-by-and-watch style can produce mysteriously moving results at times; his reputation for blandness isn't deserved when you encounter him in the concert hall. But here there seems to be little grip in his conducting.
Each movement unfolds with exquisite playing, and the conductor must be credited with the impeccable balances and rich voicing of the score. But I can't figure out the mood of the two inner movements. The Landler in the second movement isn't biting, ironic, lumbering, or affectionate. Bypassing those alternatives, Haitink simply leads the music from bar to bar. The Rondo-Burleske is executed with impressive bravura by the orchestra, but there's no satire, snarl, or danger, no edge at all. At this level of proficiency you can stand back and admire how gorgeously the score is being played or ask for more passion and personality. Haitink is perfectly fine from the first viewpoint but hardly beginning to satisfy from the second.
He's too fine a conductor to accuse of inattention, even in old age, and this Ninth held my attention more than his old studio recording wit the Royal Concergebouw on Philips. Still...