Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO: Haitink/Brendel @ Barbican Hall, London

8 June 2008

This concert at the Barbican provided an opportunity to hear two of the most distinguished musicians of our time, pianist Alfred Brendel and conductor Bernard Haitink.

Brendel has announced that, after 60 years of public performances, his final concert will be in December of this year.

It is therefore not surprising that his remaining appearances have gained the status of “must see” events.

Brendel’s final tour involves only a small number of works, presumably those he feels closest to, and for this concert he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K491. The highlight of this performance was the central Larghetto, the movement’s main melody beautifully articulated by Brendel and echoed by the London Symphony Orchestra with some of their most exquisite playing.

The concerto’s darkly intense first movement was less involving, however. Despite the use of a small string section (Haitink deploying the violins antiphonally), the orchestral texture often lacked clarity, a result of the strings dominating the texture at the expense of the woodwind. The woodwind playing itself was excellent, notably the first bassoon of Rachel Gough, but too often simply lost in the overall sound picture. As a result, both the first and last movements lacked a little in impetus, which somewhat detracted from the effect of Brendel’s fine pianism.

Eine Alpensinfonie is Richard Strauss’s last and longest tone poem. Depicting episodes in the ascent of a mountain, and composed for a vast orchestra including wind machine, thunder machine, organ, glockenspiel, cymbals, cow bells, tam-tam and two harps, the work was for a long time considered an example of simple pictorialism in music. More recently it has come to be seen as one of Strauss’s finest works, imbued with great depth of feeling and a rare sense of pantheism.

With almost three times the number of players required for Eine Alpensinfonie than for the Mozart concerto, the Barbican stage suddenly looked very busy. After a brisk walk to the podium which belied his 79 years, Haitink proceeded to galvanise the LSO into some highly impressive playing. The sheer volume generated in sequences such as Sunrise, On the summit and Thunderstorm was thrilling in itself. However, Haitink was at his most impressive in the more mysterious passages of Vision and Elegy, sections of the work which can sometimes leave the listener impatient for the next visceral thrill but which here were revealed as containing some of Strauss’s most modern and expressionistic scoring.

However, there was also an air of detachment about Haitink’s interpretation. This manifested itself in passages such as In the mountain pasture, which lacked lyrical rapture, and Sunset, presented with great richness of tone but rather lacking the Mahlerian sense of yearning which can make this sequence so moving. Haitink at times seemed too willing to be a dispassionate observer. Nevertheless, the concluding pages of the work were beautifully performed by the LSO, whose playing throughout was of the highest quality.

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LSO / Haitink @ Barbican Hall, London