‘Modest’, ‘self-effacing’, a ‘musicians’ musician’ – these are just some of the epithets used to describe the great Dutch conductor, Bernard Haitink, who died on October 21 aged 92. Tributes have been pouring in from the classical musical world – conductors, administrators, singers, players – since his death was announced, and there’s a common thread to them all – that Haitink was one of the all-time greatest conductors and, despite his advanced years, shock that he is no longer with us.
It’s very hard, if not impossible, to put into words how affecting his music making was. My first experience of the enigmatic Dutchman was a searing performance of Jenůfa at The Royal Opera House in 1986 – the production that ushered in his tenure as music director. Blown away by the exemplary orchestral playing and superb singing, I became a fan overnight.
Back then I was studying music at Birmingham University, and broadening my musical knowledge – I had a voracious musical appetite and was prepared to devour anything and everything, so whenever I went hunting for recordings, I’d invariably choose those by Haitink. Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Wagner, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Mahler, Schubert, Bartok, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Elgar, Vaughan Williams – listening to them, score in hand, helped deepen my love and understanding of classical music.
His Covent Garden years coincided with my move to London, so I tried to see every opera he conducted there – the Mozart / Da Ponte operas, Prince Igor, Kát’a Kabanová, Don Carlos, The Midsummer Marriage, Der Rosenkavalier, The Cunning Little Vixen, Die Frau ohne Schatten – all superbly done, but there was one composer with whom he had a special affinity, and that was Wagner.
His Parsifal in 1988 was luminous, superbly crafted, and exceptionally well sung, despite being saddled with a resolutely earthbound staging. He had an innate understanding of the German composer’s klang (sound), and knew how to spin those long melodic lines, like few if any of his contemporaries did. His first Ring Cycle didn’t go according to plan, however. Following a disastrous staging by Yuri Lyubimov of Das Rheingold, the project was abandoned, and a version of Götz Friederich’s production for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin was drafted in in its place. Despite this, Haitink triumphed. Superbly paced, brilliantly executed, he drew exceptional playing from the orchestra, and by the time the complete cycles were given in 1991, he had cemented his position as a Wagnerian to be reckoned with.
Three years later he was to conduct a very different Ring Cycle, directed by Richard Jones in Nigel Lowery’s designs. If anything, his conducting was even more assured, magical than it had been before. And when the Ring was given complete in 1996, he capped it with an incandescent Götterdämmerung, that remains the best I’ve ever heard. Sparks flew from the very start, and with Anne Evans giving the performance of her career as Brünnhilde, this remains for me one of the most thrilling evenings I’ve spent in the theatre.
The following year he brought an incredible warmth and humanity to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – the first time I’d ever seen a staging of Wagner’s paean to German art – thankfully preserved on disc. He bid a fond farewell to the House in 2002 with a radiant, transcendent performance of Tristan und Isolde, returning five years later to conduct Parsifal once again. These performances had a radiance and nobility, all underpinned by exemplary orchestral playing, and would be the last time he appeared in the Covent Garden pit.
Luckily, he continued to be an integral part of musical life in the capital. He appeared regularly at the Proms, with a whole host of orchestras – Chicago Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, Boston Symphony, Dresden Staatskapelle, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and the London Symphony Orchestra – and I would go out of my way to make sure I was there.
Haitink, of course, had a huge affinity with the Austrian composer, Bruckner, who for whatever reasons, had never appeared on my radar. That was all to change in 2007, when he conducted the Royal Concertgebouw in a superb performance of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, which had a profound impact one me. And after that I caught all Haitink’s Bruckner concerts in London, mostly with the LSO – a fruitful, glorious Indian summer of a partnership that was to yield magnificent results.
It’s impossible to mention each and every concert, but several stand out: a monumental, mesmerising, perfectly-executed Mahler 9 at the Proms, an iridescent, glorious Bruckner 8 at the Barbican, his 90th birthday concerts (all with the LSO) and, of course, his farewell performance at the Proms in 2019 – a stunning Bruckner 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Never showy, always allowing the music to speak for itself, Haitink’s musicianship has touched millions over a career spanning seven decades. Thankfully, he leaves behind a huge recorded legacy. No other conductor has shaped my musical tastes, and my appreciation for music more than he, and I feel privileged to have witnessed music-making on such an exalted level, so many times.