Magnificent, moving and memorable – these are the first three adjectives that spring to mind when describing this thrilling performance of Bruckner’s momentous 8th Symphony, played with complete assurance by the LSO under the magisterial baton of Bernard Haitink.
With its ninety-minute span, in the wrong hands this mighty work can sprawl; tension can flag and focus can easily be lost, but with Haitink at the helm, there was no danger of this happening. Few living conductors can boast such an affinity with Bruckner’s symphonies, and the Dutch maestro’s long association with the Eighth was evident in every bar.
From the tremulous hushed opening on the strings to the visceral excitement of the bombastic final pages of the work, tension never sagged for one second. All Haitink’s tempos were judiciously chosen and it’s testament to his direction and the alert response of all sections of the LSO that a packed hall was held in rapt attention throughout.
Although heavily scored (triple woodwinds, three harps, five horns, four Wagner tubas and four trumpets), Bruckner rarely uses the full orchestra, but when he does the cumulative effect rattles the rafters, and Haitink certainly let rip and the orchestra off the leash when required, but the real skill on show here was his handling of the more introspective moments.
The way he shaped each movement, creating a great arc of sound, is testament to his innate understanding of Bruckner’s compositional technique, and those of us with fond memories of his Wagner at Covent Garden in the ‘90s, know that few, if any, conductors possess his ability to spin these great spans of music with such coherence.
Throughout there was a rotundity and warmth to the horn and Wagner tuba sound, the brass never teetered over the edge into vulgarity and as Haitink is such a master of orchestral balance the woodwind solos shone to telling effect, no more so than in the tricky, expansive third movement (adagio). Maintaining the musical line here is difficult but it was testament to Haitink’s measured approach that the climax midway never felt over indulgent – it was if it had grown organically from within the orchestra.
With its rousing last movement, this sterling performance was capped with playing of the utmost intensity. Not surprisingly Haitink looked visibly tired at the end, but appeared genuinely moved by the well-deserved tumultuous ovation at the close, indicative of the warmth and affection in which he is held by London audiences.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.