Gardeners have crocuses to herald the arrival of spring. You might just say that BSO audiences have Bernard Haitink.
The distinguished Dutch conductor has made a habit of appearing here in late April or early May, just in time to pull a veil of clean and cloudless musicality over the subscription season. He has done so again this year, returning on Thursday night to Symphony Hall with a particularly germane program pairing Schubert’s youthful Symphony No. 5 with Mahler’s heliotropic Symphony No. 4. The latter, in particular, received a wise and ravishing performance. It’s good to have Haitink back.
Schubert’s Fifth typically gets little airtime in comparison with his later symphonies, but it is a gem of a work betraying a 19-year-old’s fecundity of imagination, paired with an uncannily precocious mastery of craft. Haitink brought an understated elegance to the outer movements, delicately characterized phrasing to the lyrical slow movement, and a slightly searching quality to the minuet, offset by a limpid trio. Some 30 minutes in length, the work unfolded with a grace and poise that made it feel much shorter.
Outwardly, Mahler’s Fourth carries us far from the Dionysian landscapes of the recently heard Third Symphony, yet it also has deep thematic and musical links to that earlier work. Like the Third, it has a setting of German folk poetry, a rapturous depiction of heavenly life, “Das Himmlische Leben,” with which the symphony concludes.
We arrive at Mahler’s heaven through the gates of this symphony’s uncommonly beautiful slow movement, performed on Thursday with a remarkable luminosity of string tone, passages of striking chamber music-like delicacy among the woodwinds, and an overall sense of journey artfully curated from the podium. Haitink and this orchestra have a long history together, and he knows how and when to step back and let the musicians play. Seldom in recent memory have the results been as rewarding.
Assistant concertmaster Elita Kang’s solos were exemplary, and the Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling was the vocal soloist in the final movement, singing with tonal refinement, musical intelligence, and that more elusive generosity of spirit that Mahler’s so-called Wunderhorn symphonies ask of their vocal soloists. At the end, after Haitink released the silence, the ovation was swift and heartfelt.