It would be hard to imagine a more auspicious start to the Shell Classic International series at the Royal Festival Hall than the appearance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink.
The pairing of one of the world’s finest orchestras with unquestionably one of the world’s finest conductors got the series off to a magnificent start.
And with a line-up that includes the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with Barenboim, and the Bavarian Radio symphony Orchestra under Jansons, the 09/20 Shell Classic International series promises to be the most exciting yet.
This pair of performances that opened this season’s Shell series given by the CSO under Haitink were the final two concerts of the orchestra’s European tour. Maybe the rigours of touring had taken their toll on Haitink as he looked frail when he walked on to the platform, but once on the podium he galvanised the members of a pared-down CSO to give a scrupulously played performance of Mozart’s joyous Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter). There was the occasional nod to period performance practice the timpanist used sticks, although not entirely successful in terms of balance, and all (bar one) of the repeats were observed, but the strings played with vibrato which whilst not excessive still seemed incongruous.
The playing of the CSO was as you’d expect – silky string tone, well-balanced woodwinds and a full rotund brass sound, so it seems invidious to pick holes in it but the overall effect was one of glacial perfection. Where was the drama? Where was the ruggedness? Considered a bit of a slow-coach in this repertoire, Haitink certainly took the final movement at an appropriate lick, but the third was a whisker too slow and the lilting minuetto failed to dance.
After the interval, and with a considerably expanded orchestra, Haitink was on surer territory with Brahms’ dramatic Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. The tempestuous opening gave notice that this was going to be a performance of operatic proportions and so it proved to be. The orchestra’s attributes that had robbed the Mozart of its ruggedness here worked perfectly in injecting a vivid sense of tonal opulence to the Brahms.
Haitink’s grasp of the architecture of the symphony was total and whilst there was a proper lightness of touch to the inner movements, the fourth movement had a grandeur that led to a fittingly dramatic conclusion. The playing of all the sections was faultless, and there were some dazzling solo contributions from Dale Clevenger (horn) and Eugene Izotov (oboe) in particular. All in all a great start to the season.