Bernard Haitink's Mahler tends to divide listeners. There are those who feel he is too restrained and those who feel that, unlike say Bernstein, his moderation is precisely what Mahler requires. This release is as far as I know the third incarnation of this recording. It was originally made in 1970 and issued on quadraphonic LP. Later it came out as a plain-vanilla CD in pretty good sound. This one, as you can see, is a hybrid SACD disc, playable on both SACD and plain CD players. It has four recorded channels and when played back on a SACD player it presents the listener with sumptuously detailed sound and a very wide dynamic range.
As for the interpretation itself, this earliest of Haitink's three studio recordings (later he recorded the Second with the Berlin Philharmonic and with the Orchestre National de France) seems to me the most assured of the three. The first movement gets off with a somewhat hesitant trumpet fanfare but soon acquires the agonized (and agonizing) sound of a monumental funeral march. The second movement, for all its being a fairly classic sonata allegro, has a wildness that we have not heretofore encountered in Mahler. Here we leave the Wunderhorn era behind. Haitink and the Concertgebouw play it brilliantly without going over the top. The Scherzo is clearly the centerpiece of the work, both symmetrically and musically, with its extraordinary contrapuntal density, brilliant orchestration and its two Trios and it is given an invigorating performance. The Adagietto takes about ten minutes, considerably quicker than Haitink's Berlin recording, and benefits from that. It is neither a self-indulgent wallow nor a maudlin love song. The silken sheen and depth of the strings of the Concertgebouw are at their best here. The Rondo-Finale is just a bit of a letdown after what has gone before, although the Concertgebouw brass and winds cover themselves with glory. I'm not quite sure what the reason for this mild disappointment is. I find Haitink's Paris performance more convincing. And when compared with the Rondo-Finale of Bernstein's, Barbirolli's or Zander's recordings, the movement comes out just a bit perfunctory.
The main attraction of this recording is its sound in SACD format. The plain stereo layer of this disc is more than acceptable but has been superseded -- leaving matters of interpretation aside -- by any number of subsequent recordings.