Dresden Haitink

Der Freischütz – Overture
Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Staatskapelle Dresden
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 2 November, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

If Beethoven’s 7th is “the apotheosis of the dance” (Wagner’s description), this final concert also marked the apotheosis of the Barbican Centre’s “Haitink at 75” series featuring Bernard Haitink and five orchestras he is closely associated with. Last night’s printed programme contained a full page advert from the LSO for three Haitink concerts in December: “Haitink Returns” … “Second Coming” might be nearer the mark.

This Dresden concert was a thoroughly rewarding evening. The combination of the Freischütz overture and Beethoven 7 reminded of another great concert when Carlos Kleiber conducted this pairing in his one London appearance with the LSO (Festival Hall). The special ingredient on this occasion was the Dresden Orchestra and Haitink’s special rapport with it – he has been Chief Conductor for the last two years, a position he relinquishes next month. Richard Strauss once called Staatskapelle Dresden “the best opera orchestra in the world” and listening to its performance of Freischütz one can understand why. This was gloriously atmospheric playing, the opening quartet of horns secure and perfectly balanced, the silences theatrical in the extreme, and the opera’s sinister twilight world effortlessly evoked; totally convincing.

Supposedly Hindemith’s most popular work, the Weber Metamorphoses now receives too few performances; on this occasion Haitink made handsome amends, turning in a muscular high-octane reading from first note to last. Staatskapelle Dresden boasts fine individual players – in the opening Allegro there was spectacularly fine tuba playing as well as notably sensitive contributions from the first flute in the Andantino and from the timpanist at the close. But the orchestra’s real glory lies in its corporate strength, especially the beautifully balanced, rich-toned string section, with first and second violins in equality and a zesty double bass section.

The Symphony received a magisterial, large-scale reading, proving that there is still plenty of room for big-band Beethoven, especially when played with this level of commitment, power and clarity. Swift in the first movement’s Poco sostenuto introduction, the following Vivace (repeat taken) had a coursing vitality. Just occasionally the brass were overwhelmed by the sheer weight of string sound. The succeeding Allegretto was well up to speed, the lower strings at the very opening miraculously well balanced and the wind soloists (despite a few unimportant slips) playing with an agreeably characterful old-fashioned mix of sound quality. Special brownie points to the sensitive, young second horn in the Trio’s lead-back. If the playing in the last two movements lacked the ultimate in precision, it more than compensated in trenchant character. This was a real performance! Haitink appeared visibly drained. Evidently he had suffered a minor injury to his conducting arm but gave unstintingly of himself.

The one blot was the slipshod programme notes: it was Eduard von Beinum (it should be van) and an orchestra called Berlin Philharmonker (sic). If one is going to attempt German, it should be Berliner Philharmoniker, otherwise settle for Berlin Philharmonic.

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