Part two of Bernard Haitink's Beethoven cycle juxtaposed the second and third symphonies. Written within only a year of each other, they are, however, miles apart in style. Symphony No 2 is witty, playful, whereas its successor lives up to its name in bold, heroic gestures.
Perhaps the earlier symphony, written in 1802, is a little ragged around the edges, and it lacked focus at times in this performance by the London Symphony Orchestra. The first movement started promisingly, the strings showing plenty of attack in the opening dotted rhythm. As always, there was an admirable balance between different sections of the orchestra, so that the beautiful flute and oboe lines in the slow introduction floated on top of a solid string bass. By the end, a drama on the scale of the mighty Choral symphony had been achieved, with a riveting counterpart between instruments in high and low registers.
Unfortunately the slow movement was patchy. For instance, the horns were cruelly exposed in two occurrences of the same passage. There was a feeling for Beethoven's sensitive instrumental combinations, however, with the violin melody taken over by clarinet and horns over a simmering accompaniment. The Scherzo ought to be the work's highlight but felt sluggish in Haitink's reading, so it was a relief to find that the fourth was played with verve. In particular the humour of the movement was conveyed, so that the seemingly eternally-delayed ending took us by surprise in the way it should.
The real business was in the Eroica symphony. An exemplary reading from this legendary conductor was matched by an ideal realisation of his needs - and Beethoven's - by the orchestra. Control was apparent from the start; Haitink brought spaciousness without ever seeming too slow. The attack of the strings was visceral, with the tremolandi played with a silvery sheen, masculine but never coarse. The long crescendi before each restatement of the main theme were nicely calculated, the conductor always ensuring both local dynamic gradations and a general shapeliness.
Will the funeral march of the slow movement ever be more hauntingly played? I have never before been so conscious of the troubled murmurings of the double bass line underneath the main theme. The major key section was expansive, the orchestra responding to all sorts of tempo fluctuations, but the return of the march was where the anguish really began. Every slur seemed to be a sigh, the controlled pianissimi of the violin melody characteristic of a suitably elegiac performance.
The third movement was equally good, plenty of fluttering in the early stages helping to create anticipation. This wonderful Scherzo is all about denial and fulfilment, and this was conveyed in the LSO's performance: an edge-of-the-seat rendition keeping us agitated until the resplendent main theme arrived. The final movement began maniacally, and the players were driven to the limits throughout, not least in the mesmerising coda.
It was sad to see the Barbican Hall half-empty for such high-level music making. With tickets for the remaining concerts starting at only £5, how can you resist?