Dresden Staatskapelle/Haitink – 20 November

Symphony No.86 in D
Symphony No.6 in A

Dresden Staatskapelle
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 November, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The culture and heritage of the Dresden Staatskapelle was amply demonstrated in this concert – part of a tour that missed out London but included Manchester – in a pairing of classic symphonies: one of Haydn’s great ones for Paris and, maybe, Bruckner’s most classical.

When, last year, Bernard Haitink succeeded the late Giuseppe Sinopoli as the Staatskapelle’s Chief Conductor, he asked that his replacement be looked for with immediate effect. Haitink, 75 next year, was being pragmatic. In reality, time is not of the essence; at this concert Haitink was on top form, a notable mix of lucidity and involvement.

This particular Haydn symphony seems a favourite of Haitink’s; he has conducted it (memorably) in London with the LPO and LSO in recent years. On this occasion, however, for all the attention given the music, this was Haydn played with too straight a bat; the composer’s wit was reined in, he seemed less adventurous. Haydn shouldn’t be put in parameters. With reduced strings, there were just three double basses, a good blend with the woodwinds was achieved; even so, brass and timpani were a little too comfortable, the drums muddy-sounding and somewhat lost in the rather too ambient acoustic. Although the Largo, flowing elegantly, created its spell, the other movements were a little too correct: not enough lilt for the delectable Trio, outer movements rather streamlined, and the strings lacked unanimity in the finale.

If the Haydn was ostensibly enjoyable and pleasing, the Bruckner was altogether magnificent. Although Symphony Hall generates a full and vibrant sound, the four seconds of reverberation is rather too long – even in Bruckner! The Hall’s resonance can be internally adjusted, and something cleaner and more immediate was needed, certainly in the Scherzo’s stream of notes and in the densest tuttis. (One wonders if the silvers, reds and shiny surfaces of the auditorium might have given way to more wood, the ideal sounding board.)

Haitink is, of course, a devoted Brucknerian, yet the Sixth Symphony appears elusive to him. Unlike symphonies 3-5 and 7-9, Haitink hasn’t re-recorded it, and while these others have appeared regularly in his London concerts, No.6 has been a notable absentee. The Dresden strings were wonderfully adroit (Haitink putting them through their paces with regards to the placing of the shortest notes) and richly expressive; the woodwinds pungently meaningful; the brass warmly integrated (save occasionally-strident trumpets); and the timpanist seem aurally remote if visibly demonstrative.

Here was a Bruckner 6 organically conceived, the joins made indivisible; there was no lack of expressional heft in music that can be sectionalised, sometimes to advantage it must be said. Haitink’s through-line, where every episode belonged and was related, was utterly convincing for the 55 minutes the symphony lasted. The slow movement moved the heart without trying, the Scherzo tickled the ears in its puckish motion and flickering detail, and the outer movements were momentous, with a sense of resolution that was deeply satisfying. The breathtaking sotto voce beginning to the first movement coda will linger long in the mind, as will the becalmed lyrical music of the finale; how cunningly Haitink set up this movement’s contrasts.

There was no encore, but then anything beyond the advertised programme’s ideal proportions would have been unbalancing. Haitink knows that less is more.

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