Bernard Haitink at Royal College of Music – Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony

Siegfried Idyll
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64

RCM Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink
Mikk Murdvee [Wagner]

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 25 February, 2011
Venue: Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Matthias CreutzigerIn a fortnight that has brought five-star performances to London by Maurizio Pollini, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin (in his truly fantastic Symphonie fantastique), let alone the sumptuous Rolls-Royce of orchestras (or should that be Mercedes-Benz?) for those lucky enough to be at Berliner Philharmoniker’s residency, perhaps the most mind-blowing concert of them all was this one at the Royal College of Music.

Bernard Haitink – once such a regular feature of London’s musical life, who was even missing from the BBC Proms last year (a rare absence in over forty years), but who has two concerts with the LSO in June – belatedly returned to his occasional position of conductor of the RCM Symphony Orchestra: some eighteen months ago he missed his scheduled Mahler 9 and was replaced by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

As Haitink built the sunrise climax early in An Alpine Symphony it occurred to me that perhaps one of the reasons some conductors have such extended careers is that the very force of the sound they ‘orchestrate’ is therapeutic. In the generous acoustic of the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, this was not so much a performance that you heard, rather one that you felt, the sound embracing your whole body. The bounty of the Hall’s acoustic had been heard before the interval in the original 13-instrument version of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Coming from hearing “Parsifal” at ENO the previous night (also excellent), this was the ideal work to bridge the gap to Richard Strauss. In Estonian Mikk Murdvee’s hands it was very nicely shaped, and even with its small forces, amply filled the Hall with grace and detail. An early smudged horn entry and the penultimate chord curiously spread (not an unpleasant effect, though surely not intended) aside, this was a beguiling, charming performance. Was the pairing of works partly conceived with ‘climb’ in mind, given that the first performance of the Wagner was a serenade for his wife Cosima’s birthday, with the players arrayed up the stairs to her bedroom?

The Strauss increased the forces exactly ten-fold (counting the offstage brass, which welcomed students from both the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music). How did the acoustic cope? Well, I’ve mentioned the sheer, exhilarating force of the sound, but only once was a cloying of textures detected and then only briefly. The other extraordinary factor of Haitink’s magisterial conception was the clarity of detail, the opening and closing pages of nocturnal grumblings clearly captured with fantastic definition amongst the orchestra’s bass instruments.

The off-stage hunting brass was close enough to have similar exhilarating presence and, after the hushed, utter still (and for that, so more imposing) vista at the top, sounded exquisitely and without any guile by oboist Lucinda Dalton, the storm was as visceral as you could ever hope it to be, the pizzicato raindrops particularly successful in this acoustic. Amidst a litany of fine solo playing, mention must add to the loudest cheers for principal trumpeter Christian Barraclough. As ever with such RCM Symphony Orchestra performances there’s an honesty and directness about the playing that mark it out as different to most professional performances. Intriguingly, on the heckelphone, London Sinfonietta bassoonist John Orford had been drafted in – so there was at least one professional’s input!

Haitink is a master in this repertoire, as his two recordings of this work testify (with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the LS0). The microphones were out for this performance, perhaps for archive purposes, but with a performance like this perhaps there’s a chance it will have a published afterlife.

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