Opera + Classical Music Reviews

CSO/Haitink @ Royal Festival Hall, London

24 September 2009

As if the previous night’s programme of Mozart and Brahms were not sufficient evidence of their credentials in the heights of the European symphonic tradition, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concluded their visit to London with two more masterpieces of the genre.

And under the baton of Bernard Haitink, the CSO delivered an insightful performance Haydn’s 101st Symphony and an unforgettable one of Bruckner’s Seventh.

Haydn’s 101st Symphony, also known as The Clock”, from the tick-tocking ostinato of its Andante, was performed by a slimmed down ensemble with some 30 strings, in recognition of the work’s 18th century provenance. Nevertheless, the orchestra’s powerful violins still rather dominated the texture, a factor which an antiphonal placement might have mitigated. This, coupled with the omission of the exposition repeat in the first movement and Haitink’s brisk traversal of the Andante, gave an impression of brusqueness rather than humour and charm. In compensation, however, the performance benefited from tension and energy, particularly in the short but intricately constructed finale, and expressive playing from the orchestra.

Haitink’s performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was everything than one might expect from a conductor with half a century’s experience in the repertoire. I occasionally find Haitink’s interpretations impressive rather than inspired, but here he delivered a performance of unsurpassed beauty and intensity.

As if stealing into one’s consciousness, tremolando violins and luminous cellos heralded the start of first movement, the orchestra responding to Haitink’s conducting with playing of wonderful assurance, sensitivity and power. The transition to the coda was especially impressive, the horns achingly beautiful, and the coda itself brimmed with energy to very last bar.

The performance of the Adagio was authoritative and profoundly moving. As in the first movement, Haitink sustained a feeling of line throughout, delivering seamless transitions and a strong sense of cumulative tension, leading to a thrilling delivery of the movement’s climax (here capped with the cymbal and triangle of the Nowak score). Throughout, the purity and depth of tone provided by the brass was highly impressive, and the sustained string playing in the coda was breathtaking.

The Scherzo was notable for a surprisingly visceral feeling of power and dynamism, but also for the lyricism of the phrasing, not to mention the beguiling delivery of the trio. The performance was capped by a superb account of the Finale, with glorious tremolando strings and resounding brass chorales, and even Haitink’s drop in tempo at the very end didn’t stop the coda from being thrilling. The audience gave a standing ovation, and deservedly so.

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