On the longest day of the year, Bernard Haitink and the LSO offered a substantial Beethoven programme. Leonore No.2 is related to Fidelio, if jettisoned in the final version. As a concert item, along with the not dissimilar No.3, it is more a symphonic poem, an encapsulation of the opera, from despair to liberation. Haitink gave Leonora No.2 with full weight (full strings, too, sixty in number, Gordan Nikolitch leading), the rendition pregnant with tension and dispatched with indivisibility across its whole. In terms of purely musical matters, attention to dynamics was scrupulous, whether subito or graded, and balances impeccable, not least the embedding of brass into the overall texture: here was the adaptable LSO doing its impression of a cultured European ensemble, responding faithfully to each of Haitink’s economic gestures. That said, the off-stage warning trumpet would have enjoyed greater distance and the victorious coda was a little sedate.
The Goethe-inspired Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (which also spawned a splendid overture by Mendelssohn) is a rarity, a short cantata. The ‘Calm Sea’ part refers to an ocean’s vastness and a vessel’s immobility on it, no breeze, until in ‘Prosperous Voyage’ winds strike up through orchestral flurries – we’re on the move and land is sighted. Two poems, one piece, the settings are respectively enthralled and hesitant, then energised and optimistic. From sublime to celebratory, this reading was an ear-opener, although not all of Beethoven’s challenges were met by the London Symphony Chorus in the first part (sopranos somewhat stretched, for example), yet what followed was suitably lusty.
In the ‘Choral’ Symphony, Haitink belied that he is now 86, for his focus on the music was unstinting and palpable. He also brought much wisdom to the music-making, unsullied by ‘trends’ and ‘schools’. Once again, dynamic variance was enlightening (not least at the lower end of the scale) and without contrivance, and detailing was exquisite. Haitink’s spacious tempo for the first movement spoke of patience and sureness of direction, majestically riding the waves, a prosperous voyage indeed. The Scherzo might be described as dogged. My view would be this: that rather it be a 100-metre dash, Haitink claimed the music’s litheness, making it articulate and interactive. With every repeat observed, the Scherzo was nearly as long as the opening movement and the use of antiphonal violins paid many dividends, and there was also a delicacy that looked-forward to Berlioz’s ‘Queen Mab’ (from Roméo et Juliette). The Trio was given time to express itself and seemed to blow in from the Elysian Fields. (Only now did the vocal soloists appear; thankfully nobody indulged mood-breaking clapping as the singers took their place in front of the Chorus.)
What became clear during the slow movement was how proportionately spot-on Haitink was being across the whole work, worthy of Klemperer who had an all-encompassing view of this boundary-breaking score (try Testament SBT1177 for a remarkable example, a catalogue number enshrined on my soul). On its own terms, away from its siblings, Haitink’s view of the Adagio was the tiniest bit on the swift side, yet it fitted to the totality and was also an oasis of communion, unaffected, played raptly, and with a dance-like freshness in the Andante sections that was an intriguing contrast to what otherwise was rapturous.
After each of the first two movements Haitink had sat for a few seconds. Eschewing such comfort he went attacca into the finale. Again, integration was his watchword, whether the low-strings’ recitatives or reminiscences of the previous movements, and the ‘Ode to Joy’ itself could not have been more unheralded or simply stated; very effective. For the setting of Schiller, the London Symphony Chorus (many of its members without copy) was in vivid form, and if the soloists were variable – ladies excellent, Steve Davislim a little reticent, and Hanno Müller-Brachmann curiously untidy in his “not these sounds” speech – all the performers were galvanised by Haitink’s absorption in the music – a flick of his baton or a glance having the desired effect (trumpets breaking through on the command of an eyebrow being raised).
In this last movement, although there were moments of awe-struck contemplation, there was much that was festive as part of a truth-seeking (75-minute) account, full of fraternity, one thing leading to another, naturally, and thus the life-enhancing coda wasn’t rushed off its feet – Haitink doesn’t do showmanship – and instead blazed with Brotherhood. Standing ovations can be ritualistic and artificial, this one was spontaneous and apt to a great and glorious performance, Haitink modestly acknowledging the reception and as vigorous in his walk as when starting the concert.
When the LSO opens its 2015-16 Season, Bernard Haitink presides over the first three concerts – 15, 20 and 23 September (and then there is a trip to Tokyo) – and includes Murray Perahia in two of them.