Just four days after Andre Previn’s memorable appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra, this concert featured another octogenarian guest conductor, another capacity audience and another night of quality music making.
Bernard Haitink may be 86 years old and may confine himself to a relatively small number of favourite composers, but shows no signs of allowing his interpretative approach to fall into routine. For the performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 3 that opened the concert, for example, Haitink deployed just 21 strings, the smallest orchestra I’ve yet seen him use. Although he hasn’t abandoned the use of vibrato, there was an element of chasteness to string playing that was perfectly fitting. The result was a naturally balanced sound that allowed the oboes and flutes to make their rightful contribution to the musical argument.
The soloist was Alina Ibragimova, who learnt the concerto especially for this performance. Her interpretation was notable for its impassioned delivery, sweet violin tone and use of vibrato on the tail end of longer notes. This gave the concerto a romantic feel that didn’t seem entirely at one with Haitink’s more classical approach. However, there was no sign of a work recently learned in terms of Ibragimova’s technical command or overall musicality.
The second half consisted of a superlative performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, commencing with an account of the mysterious opening that was full of tension and anticipation. Evocative woodwinds and ideally placed offstage trumpets led to a presentation of the main theme that radiated warmth and lyricism. After a straightforward but exciting account of the Scherzo, it was good to hear the third movement open with the Frère Jacques melody performed by one double bass rather than the whole section, as sometimes occurs. The movement’s subsequent contrasting moods were strongly characterised in this performance. Haitink’s conducting was particularly animated during the symphony’s finale. Here, anguish, nostalgia and ultimate triumph were all conveyed with a telling immediacy and the symphony’s jubilant conclusion, the eight horn players standing as directed by Mahler, was thrilling.