Dresden Staatskapelle of Saxony

Symphony No.38 in D K504 “Prague”
Symphony No.3 in D minor (1877 version, edited Nowak)

Dresden Staatskapelle of Saxony conducted by Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

One of Bernard Haitink’s most characteristic conducting gestures is his courteous invitation to players to commune a phrase; the expressive curve of his baton not only elicits something intrinsic for the paragraph he’s cueing, his body language signals its place in the grand design. Throughout this magnificent concert, Haitink was the master of long-viewed thinking – espousing a musical chain with no weak links.

While not complaining about the Prague’s inclusion, I note that Mozart and Bruckner are fast becoming inseparable concert bedfellows. With Bruckner’s ’Wagner Symphony’ might have gone the Tannhauser Overture (Dresden version of course) with Schubert’s vivacious Third as sandwich-filler, a dance-related Austrian companion to Bruckner’s ’earthier’ invention; Mozart’s Linz Symphony would have been geographically closer to Bruckner’s Ansfelden birthplace.

K504 is one of Mozart’s greatest achievements (and one of my favourite pieces). Haitink’s forward-moving Adagio introduction – with Don Giovanni in its shadows – and the flowing slow movement, its pathos gentler here but no less telling, may perhaps reflect an interest in ’authentic’ performing practice. Certainly there was a tempo relationship between the three movements (there’s no Minuet) which meant the Presto finale was no faster than it needed to be and bubbled with good humour. With exposition repeats in place, Haitink gave each movement largesse of expression and tautness of construction, subtle inflections and dynamics complementing and illuminating the journey.

Haitink’s lucid conducting of Bruckner is always long-term, not only in his building of the edifice but – crucial this – his layering of dynamics, which has a significant part in determining structural contours. Haitink led a spacious ’Wagner Symphony’, its first version (1872-3) being Bruckner’s composer-homage, then he revised it in 1877 with only a passing reference, in the finale, to Die Walkure’s Magic Fire Music. Come 1889, the second revision – “an abortion” to quote one commentator – is Bruckner’s last main attempt to perfect it, but there are at least six versions (in the stated years, Bruckner appears to have also prepared alternative texts); performance possibilities can be further extended by adding individual movements, the 1876 Adagio for example.

Conductors used to gravitate to Nowak’s 1889 version, but now the focus is more on 1877; Haitink it seems has always preferred that year, first in Oeser’s edition, now Nowak’s – the main differences are a big pause early into the first movement (which Oeser eschews with linking material) and a scherzo coda that Bruckner forbade playing, which Nowak includes! This version-minefield of a symphony was billed, for this concert, as “1st definitive version” in the ’south bank magazine’. The words Bruckner and definitive are rarely combined! The first score didn’t find favour with Wagner – he wasn’t keen on Bruckner quoting him – although there are Bruckner experts, not least William Carragan, who regard Bruckner’s initial thoughts as often his best – this viewpoint is also significant when considering the Fourth and Eighth symphonies. The 1877 Third represents a compromise between the innovative if flawed debut and the ’conventional’ 1889. Personally, abortion or not, I prefer the structure and orchestration of the ultimate copy, especially in the finale.

These considerations mattered less though in Haitink’s glorious performance, which splendidly exploited the golden sonorities of the Dresden Staatskapelle. There were some wonderful moments of calm in the first movement when the music hung on a thread of pianissimo tone, yet was pregnant with atmosphere and quivered with anticipation. The culture and refinement of the Orchestra was palpable throughout – a lifetime’s work for its members: LP and CD collectors will know the names of Peter Mirring – he remains the Concertmaster – and Peter Damm, whose ’liquid’ opening solo magically conveyed a horn being blown across mountains.

Silver flutes, honeyed oboes, lithe and warm strings, and refulgent, never coarse, brass contributed to a very special performance, one massive and lyrical, fiery and dancing – the trio’s landler daintily springy, the finale’s polka less indulged than it could have been with Haitink jacking-up the brass’s dynamics, which made for amusing counterpoint, especially from trombones.

What also gave considerable pleasure was the ease and authority with which the Dresdeners shared their innate understanding of the music – Haitink the catalyst, the term ’first among equals’ apposite. What a pleasure too that, after a couple of cancellations, Haitink was not only conducting (from memory) and doing so with such keenness and control. It’s on evenings like this that there’s no doubting Bernard Haitink is one of the great conductors.

  • The next Classic International concert features the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra playing Webern and Brahms under Riccardo Chailly – RFH, Monday 19 March, 7.30
  • After this the Vienna Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta will play Schubert, Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky – RFH, Monday 23 April, 7.30
  • Box Office 020 7960 4201
  • Book Online www.rfh.org.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content