It is a fair, if untested, assumption that conductors improve with age. In the case of Sir Berrnard Haitink, it must surely be true. Celebrating his 85th birthday this year with two concerts at the Barbican, the veteran Dutch conductor displayed a vision and clarity that comes from 60 years of experience on the podium.
These days Haitink can afford to pick and choose the orchestras he works with, and it is telling that for this concert (and for his second outing at the Barbican on 7 June) he chose to work with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe – a fairly youthful ensemble of outstanding musicians. That combination of experience and youthful energy found an outlet in Schumann’s restless overture to his now largely forgotten incidental music to Byron’s Manfred. Fine pacing and sensitivity towards Schumann’s orchestration characterised Haitink’s approach, from the gloomy opening to the uneasy calmness of the final bars.
Haitink has long been regarded as a valued orchestral partner in concerto works, and his reading and execution of Berg’s Violin Concerto was revelatory. He was fortunate in having Isabelle Faust – a renowned interpreter of the work – at his side as soloist. She gave a precise and emotionally intense account of this intriguing and poignant concerto. Her tendency to occasionally slip beneath the orchestral textures also had the advantage of both evening out the relationship between violin and orchestra, and also of revealing the layered depths of Berg’s scoring. The COE’s woodwind section (equipped with saxophone) was on particularly fine form, while members of the percussion section played with a delicacy and mastery that is often overlooked. Meanwhile, the partnership between the 85-year-old Haitink and the 42-year-old Faust was clearly one of mutual respect, understanding and affection, crowned by the orchestra’s final, contented, resignation beneath the violin’s stratospheric top G.
Haitink’s musicality fully came into its own in Beethoven’s Sixth ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. His starting point appeared to be the composer’s assertion that this most programmatic of symphonies was ‘more the expression of feeling than tone-painting’, while also acknowledging the very obvious nature painting within the work as a whole. Haitink’s tempi were swift, but charged with pulse and momentum rather than hurry or drive. The strings sounded warm and balanced, and the woodwind, once again, displayed superlative skill, particularly in Beethoven’s unashamedly ‘authentic’ second-movement bird calls. The peasants’ merrymaking in the third movement was appropriately rumbustious, interrupted by a well-executed thunder storm. The final shepherds’ hymn of thanks flowed naturalistically without the sentimentality that can sometimes mar performances. Warmth, well-roundedness and joy marked out Haitink’s Beethoven – descriptors that could also define his 60-year career.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.