LSO/Haitink Beethoven Cycle (3)

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Overture – Leonore No.2, Op.72

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Recorded in the Barbican Hall, London in 2005 – on 16 & 17 November (Leonora No.2) & 21 & 22 November

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2006
Duration: 64 minutes

Around and during the 1970s Bernard Haitink recorded many great symphonies including complete Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler sets. At that time I found his Beethoven recordings uninteresting. Creditable in that the tempos were sensible and the conductor never indulged in romantic distortions of rhythm yet the music seemed not to be illuminated. I did not hear Haitink in the concert hall until some years after that and I immediately realised that my disappointment must have been engendered more by the recorded sound than by the music-making.

In concert, Haitink achieves grand, burnished sound, excellent in detail and notable for its strength. At their worst, those older recordings provided excellent violin quality, pleasant woodwinds and a low-pitched mush which represented cellos, double basses, bassoons, horns and timpani, but none of these instruments separated from the other with any clarity. Dynamic range was also narrow.

LSO Live seems to represent the real Haitink much more convincingly. The microphones might have been placed quite close to the orchestra or alternatively it could be that they are all narrowly directional in nature. I suggest these possibilities, not only because the resultant sound gives this impression, but also because either of these techniques would successfully minimise audience noise. Whatever technique was used, the clarity is exemplary. Certainly the audience is made to seem admirably silent and orchestral detail is excellent; every melodic line comes through with great clarity.

One of the biggest disappointments of the older recordings was the poor focus of the timpani. The opposite is true in the new recording; the timpani sound is captured excitingly. The perspective here is surprisingly close – especially in the first movement of the Eroica. The drums are placed to the right, so maybe they were more forwardly located on the platform than usual, but so many recordings fail to capture these instruments properly that I can accept this type of sound quality.

Haitink’s performance has a magnificently strong forward flow to it. The Eroica’s opening movement takes quite a long time (the exposition repeat is included), and nearly 18 minutes looks like an immense span (over two minutes longer than, for example, Charles Mackerras), yet so firm is Haitink’s forward thrust that never for a moment does it give the impression of slowness. In the Funeral March Haitink is very convincing indeed. How satisfying (and indeed how rare) it is to hear a performance of this movement that does not speed up for the loud parts and slow down for the quieter moments. Again, Haitink’s strong, all-through impulse is the basis of his success.

The scherzo dances firmly forward and Haitink sweeps urgently through the trio section with magnificent playing from the horns. Other conductors hit the climaxes harder here but Haitink seems to be treating this movement as light relief from the seriousness of the Funeral March – in the context of his interpretation this is ideal. The finale begins with strength, confidence and bold speed. The orchestral detail is excellent and enhances the subtlety of Haitink’s phrasing. I particularly appreciate the way in which the trumpets are never permitted to overpower the horns. In the coda Haitink takes the option of impressing with power rather than speed. Altogether, this is a notable ‘big band’ interpretation of this masterpiece.

Leonore No.2 (not taken from the same concert as the Eroica) is a sensible coupling since it is so nearly contemporary with the companion piece. I have read analyses of this work that eulogise it, finding it not inferior to Leonora No.3. I do not share that view and while forgiving the fragmentary nature of the early music where the themes are assembled I feel that this work, fine though it is, is a mere prelude to the greater things found in Beethoven’s later conception. This sensitively shaped performance, notable for some magically hushed playing, keeps the listener attentive to the fascinating differences between this and the more familiar No.3.

The famous ‘distant’ trumpet interjections are beautifully done but I know that one big moment of disappointment in the music is due eventually to undermine my sympathy. This occurs just after the start of the coda (at 13’26” in this performance) when Beethoven brings back the main theme at double tempo for just a few seconds. I have never understood how one of the greatest musical geniuses could have perpetrated such a banal idea. These seconds ruin, for me, a noble work and it is probably beyond any conductor to make this brief moment convincing. To ask the orchestra to play those bars at half tempo would probably cause a riot. No matter, I do not want to detract from my recommendation of this intriguing production just because of my personal problem with three seconds of music!

The problems of recording at a concert hall in the presence of an audience have been magnificently overcome. This label has the policy of cutting out applause and I heartily approve of this philosophy. One minor niggle in presentation – the overall timing given in the booklet and on the back cover is ten minutes more than the actual playing time. There is very little else to complain about.

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