Bernard Haitink’s appearances with the LSO are always a keenly anticipated event at the Proms, indeed they have become something of a fixture. This year the revered Dutch maestro, looking sprightly at 85, brought two contrasting symphonies to the Royal Albert Hall; Schubert’s effervescent Fifth Symphony, and Mahler’s majestic Fourth Symphony. Haitink remains a conductor non pareil in Mahler’s vast symphonies – his Ninth at the Proms four years ago remains a happy memory. The programme notes informed us that the only two of the Austrian composer’s symphonies that had eluded him at the Proms were the Fourth and the Eighth; there’s always a sense of expectancy at his appearances on the podium, and this was heightened given that this would be the first time he’s tackled the Fourth here at the Proms.
To begin the evening a pared down LSO gave a beguiling account of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, one of his sunniest. Haitink kept the orchestral textures light and airy, and didn’t dawdle – indeed his exhilarating tempi came as something as a welcome surprise.
After the interval we were treated to an incandescent performance of Mahler’s Fourth. Not surprisingly the results were revelatory. The opening of the first movement is one of Mahler’s most inspired, as woodwind and sleigh bells usher us into the composer’s unique sound world, and here Haitink’s approach was measured and felt exactly right (Mahler’s instructions are ‘Deliberate – don’t hurry’). Climaxes grew organically, and his attention to detail was scrupulous, but where some conductors seem hell bent on highlighting phrases and motifs at the expense of the overall structure, Haitink’s sure-footed way with the score allowed for vivid individual moments without ever losing focus on the bigger picture.
The second movement, an ebullient Scherzo, begins with a theme the composer described as ‘Freund Hain spielt auf (Friend Hain strikes up)’; a Pied Piper figure from German folklore who seduces his listeners with his playing as he leads them to the land of ‘Beyond’. Hain’s fiddle requires the leader, in an astonishingly assured performance by Tomo Keller, to play a violin that’s tuned a tone higher than usual, which adds to the sardonic nature of this movement.
The lilting melancholic third movement’s climax, which leads into the final was properly shattering, where soprano Camilla Tilling provided glorious silvery tone as she sang about the ‘Heavenly Life’, bringing this unforgettable performance to its hushed conclusion. All sections of the LSO played magnificently – the fact that they enjoy working with Haitink was evident in every bar, and they rewarded him with some of the finest playing I’ve heard all year.
This was an evening of music making that touched the heart and enriched the soul, and will rank as one of the undisputed highlights of this year’s Proms.
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