Breath of Brahms – LSO/Haitink (18 May)

Tragic Overture, Op.81
Concerto in A minor, Op.102 for violin, cello and orchestra
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Gordan Nikolitch (violin)
Tim Hugh (cello)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 18 May, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Bernard Haitink seals a burgeoning relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall with a Brahms Symphony cycle, which started at the weekend and will be completed in June 2004, when the final two symphonies will be programmed together. All are being recorded for the LSO Live label, and the first concert moved from the brooding darkness of the Tragic Overture to the carefree joyousness of the Finale of the Second Symphony, with orchestra principals taking the solo roles in the late double concerto.

I wonder if, with the benefit of hindsight, I will look back not only on Sunday but also the remaining concerts in the season and regard them as the most perfect examples of Brahms performance I have had the pleasure of hearing (and seeing). Certainly there was something quite special about the first instalment, with Haitink’s clear conception matched by the LSO at its most responsive, creating a marvellous burnished tone in the still-new Barbican Hall acoustic, which I hope will be more faithfully represented on the resultant recordings than some of Sir Colin Davis’s recordings which have unfortunately not come alive as much on disc as in the hall.

Haitink allows the music to speak for itself. He never occludes instrumental lines, indeed – just like his recent Bruckner 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall – he uses double wind, where Karajan (and many others) would make quadruple. There’s no need, as Haitink shows with his delicate layering of his full body of strings (nine double basses even!). The very opening passage of the Tragic Overture, organically growing in its brooding discontent, reminded me of how much Brahms, let alone Haitink, is a master of drama. It occurred to me that if Brahms had not been so openly against programmatic music, then the Tragic Overture could easily have been a musical description of a folk tale (as in his friend Dvořák’s late tone poems) or romantic poem (Schumann’s Manfred perhaps). Andrew Huth in his note suggested that Brahms had once thought of writing incidental music to Goethe’s Faust and this might have been in the back of his mind while working on the Tragic Overture. Certainly it is possible to believe you’re following a story of your own making while listening enthralled to such a vibrant account as this.

Pseudo-programmatic elements made themselves apparent in the Double Concerto, with soloists Gordan Nikolitch (on his 18th-century fiddle) and Tim Hugh (on his 17th-century cello, which was already two centuries old when Brahms wrote this concerto) like characters in an urgent narrative. Sometimes over excited (Nikolitch’s exuberance creating the odd ugly grate in his most excitable moments), the pair were the most congenial of guides, especially in the lyrical slow movement. Lithe and lively, gritty and determined, calm and conciliatory: here was every emotion, belying the traditional view of Brahms as old, loveless curmudgeon (with beard).

For those (like me) who react vehemently to the cosmetic psychobabble that Wagner penned as ’romantic’ music, Brahms is the epitome of real emotional music. I had never particularly thought about Brahms in this way before this performance, but so involving and convincing were the overture and concerto that Brahms’s reputation soared even higher. It also made me wish that Haitink would turn again to some of the 19th-century highways and byways he used to explore – particularly, for instance, the tone poems of Liszt.

And then there was Brahms’s golden Second Symphony, where light and shade were so vividly characterised that you could almost feel at one with Brahms on his summer holiday in the Austrian Lake District, breathing in the same country air as he created the work in months as opposed to his First Symphony (to be heard this 21st and 22nd May) which took him over two decades. And all the time Haitink revealed new insights to this well-known work. The falling fourths in the final movement have never sounded so prescient of Mahler’s falling fourths at the opening of his First Symphony (started only seven years after the Brahms, and surely with full knowledge), nor has the organic way in which Brahms fashions the path to the final coda. At every turn there is thematic transformation that is infinitely subtler than Sibelius.

I loved Brahms before this concert (although he was the last major composer I cracked, and perhaps if I’d heard Haitink 20-odd years ago in this repertoire I would have found my own path to Brahms sooner), but I love him even more now. I get the impression that the LSO felt so too.

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