Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Royal Concertgebouw / Haitink @ Barbican Hall, London

15 March 2009

Earlier this month, Bernard Haitink celebrated his 80th birthday by conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in a programme of Schumann and Bruckner in his native Amsterdam.

This concert at the Barbican provided a chance to hear Haitink in a reprise of the Amsterdam programme.

Although currently Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Haitink has long had a relationship with the Royal Concertgebouw, having first conducted them in 1956. He was the orchestra’s Principal Conductor from 1963 to 1988 and is now Conductor Laureate. Haitink also has a long association with London audiences as a result of lengthy spells as music director of the London Philharmonic, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

Opening this sold out concert was a performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Murray Perahia. This was a particularly engaging interpretation, not just for Perahia’s pianism, but for the contribution of the orchestra and principal oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk. Perahia’s approach combined poetic ardour with a powerful romantic thrust, and he wasn’t afraid to risk a few miskeyings in the interest of communicative intensity in more dramatic passages. Haitink’s accompaniment provided clarity and vigour, and the partnership with Perahia was particularly successful in the concluding Allegro vivace.

For the second half of the concert, Haitink conducted Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, a work which occupied the composer for nine years until his death in 1896. Unlike the earlier symphonies, which have a sense of a certainty arising from Bruckner’s Catholic faith, the unfinished Ninth expresses doubt and spiritual anguish. It is a favourite work of Haitink’s, the conductor having also performed it at his 75th birthday celebrations five years ago and more recently with the Royal College of Music orchestra.

In a superbly articulate performance, Haitink presided over an interpretation where every note, phrase and paragraph was at the service of the symphonic whole. The orchestra responded to Haitink’s lead with playing of the utmost sensitivity and unanimity, the precise balance allowing rarely heard inner voices to be heard and facilitating climaxes of great tonal splendour. And unlike in many performances of Bruckner symphonies, there were no unwarranted additions to the number of brass instruments specified by the composer.

What was missing in this performance, however, was a sense of drive and cumulative tension. The deep expressiveness of Bruckner’s flowing melodies, the tumult of the great climaxes of the first and third movements, and even the rugged power of the demonic scherzo were not prominent features in Haitink’s interpretation. Altogether, this didn’t quite match the magnificent performance of the Ninth Symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta in the Royal Festival Hall last month. Nevertheless, enough people in the audience were sufficiently impressed to give Haitink a standing ovation.

London audiences are privileged to have had the opportunity to hear successive performances of Bruckner’s last symphony by two such great orchestras. And July brings the opportunity to hear a performance of the symphony by yet another top ensemble, the London Symphony Orchestra, under Valery Gergiev at the City of London Festival.

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