Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Haitink in London – 2

Symphony No.101 in D (Clock)
Symphony No.7 in E [1885 Version; Nowak Edition]

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 24 September, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Matthias CreutzigerThe second of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s two London concerts as part of the Southbank Centre’s “Shell Classic International” series brought an ideal pairing of Haydn and Bruckner, ideal because both composers seem to bring out the very best in Bernard Haitink.

It would be idle to now expect any radical changes of interpretative approach on Haitink’s part – he is nothing if not the most consistent of musicians – but in music such as this with, which he clearly feels a strong affinity, he has continued to develop. For example, having heard him conduct Bruckner 8 over three decades, with the LPO, the Concertgebouw and the Vienna Philharmonic (70s, 80s and 90s respectively), the really notable thing has been how each successive performance has marked an improvement on the previous one, as though each were being subtly fine-tuned, and this Bruckner 7 was no exception.

Talking of previous decades, the ‘Clock’ Symphony would not have sounded out of place in an Eduard van Beinum Concertgebouw concert of the 1950s and it was none the worse for that with a substantial string complement and no genuflections in the direction of period practice. Old-fashioned musical virtues have their place, and this was an appealingly sinewy account superbly articulated. Whereas Haitink has seldom seemed fully at home with Mozart’s Watteau-like grace, his Haydn has a robust gait and rustic quality which takes us right back to the world of Breughel.

A perfectly poised slow introduction led to the ruddiest and most jovial Presto – exposition repeat omitted – certainly not the fastest one has heard but with a sturdy quality which sometimes eludes quicker readings. By contrast, the slow movement’s clock ticked exceedingly fast, but despite the swift tempo the Chicago strings managed their floating string line and the movement’s stormy central section with real aplomb. The Minuet, very much 3-in-a-bar, seemed a little dogged (although its bucolic Trio was a delight) whilst the finale was a genuine Vivace, Haitink timing its big pause to a tee.

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Clive BardaStanding ovations, often uncritical, are turning into the norm on occasions such as this; however, the one that greeted the Bruckner 7 was wholly deserved. This was an excellent antidote to all those Bruckner performances that linger interminably; in all four movements there was that indefinable sense of a constant forward motion, even in the quietest passages, and from the outset it was as though we had cast off into the current on the broadest of rivers. Indeed the sheer amplitude of the cellos and violas in the opening – said to have come to Bruckner in a dream – had to be heard to be believed.

Suffice it to say that the whole work passed in a flash. Whereas in many performances the scherzo and especially the finale can seem like poor relations to the previous two movements, here they took their full share of the emotional weight and the work’s very close was utterly radiant. In the slow movement’s extended lament Haitink judged the speed relationships with particular acuity; the Wagner tubas threnody at the close was of extraordinary eloquence, answered by the descending strings as though in a single breath.

A couple of small quibbles: Haitink’s use of the single cymbal crash in the Adagio and perhaps in the Festival Hall’s unforgiving acoustic it might have been wise to leave us with the impression of a great orchestra playing slightly more within itself – the sheer power on display could be overbearing. On the other hand, this was a Bruckner symphony given with such exultant conviction.

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