Haitink RCM Resurrection

Motet – Christus factus est
Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Anna Leese (soprano) & Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)

RCM Chorus [Terry Edwards, chorus master]

RCM Symphony Orchestra [Michael Young, offstage conductor]
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 October, 2004
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Having recently conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s Third Symphony as part of the Barbican’s “Haitink at 75” series, Bernard Haitink stayed in London for two performances of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. You might have missed them on the concert schedules, as these were free performances at the Royal College of Music with its Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

That this first concert became one of the most moving of Haitink’s appearances this year in London was to do with his obvious joy of conducting young musicians. This was highlighted after the performance when the Chairman of the Royal College, Sir Anthony Cleaver, presented Haitink with an honorary doctorate of music and leaving him with the final words. This private and modest man is not given to speeches (one remembers the exceptions – the overtly political plea at the end of the Royal Opera’s Ring at the Royal Albert Hall, and the valedictory speeches at his farewell concerts at the Garden) and here it was typical of the man that halfway through his acceptance speech he turned to face the players to thank them for making his visits to the college so special.

He told us that although he has been associated with the college in a formal conducting capacity for just four years, he felt longer ties, recalling that he had first set foot in the College for sectional rehearsals for his Covent Garden Ring cycle in the early 90s, whereupon many of the players said that it was like returning to school as they had studied there. Thus he already knew the importance of the College to British musical life and now relishes the chance to come back and conduct the orchestra. Turning to the players he informed them that however tired he feels at a rehearsal he only has to lift his baton and the young players’ enthusiasm and talent inspire him.

It epitomised the whole tenor of the concert – one of those special occasions that (quite literally in this case) money can’t buy – which started with a heartfelt a cappella motet by Bruckner, conducted by guest Terry Edwards, now free from his Covent Garden duties but still as busy as ever. The massed choir, able to move forward from their precipitous eyrie at the back of the hall to spread over some of the orchestral area, gave the short paean to God a splendid and joyous performance, a fitting opener for Mahler’s sprawling edifice to the glory of his adopted religion.

In performance, Haitink conducts only as much as he needs to, in that he finds a way to indicate what he wants from his players. If something isn’t going the right way he won’t push it in rehearsal but retreats to find a way that he can indicate exactly the desired effect. He can be very animated if need be (this performance was not without him jumping clear of the podium) and also very minimalist. His fine judgement of his young charges started with a tangible crackling of electricity from the high strings, through which cut – with astonishing ensemble every time – the upward scale of the cellos and double basses. The wind keened their way through the ensuing lament and the first movement funeral march had an inner logic in Haitink’s hands that seemed to halve its length. Any worries that the relative smallness of the hall would strain at the volume where dissipated as the acoustic seemed to swell at every crescendo, with only the occasional loss of inner parts.

An exemplary audience kept their hands apart at the entrance of the two vocal soloists at the end of the first movement, whereupon there was a cajoling lilt to the second movement Ländler, which was then gently mocked by the scherzo based on the Wunderhorn song about St Francis’s address to fish. As it died away, mezzo Jennifer Johnston stood to richly intone “Urlicht” – again from the Wunderhorn collection. Looking strikingly alike, both physically and in dress, the two soloists – Anna Leese was the soprano – sang ardently and securely without scores (always an aid to communicating with the audience) and topped the finale along with the thrilling chorus.

Having said (although perhaps not in print) that I think Mahler 2 is one of those works that should not be heard too often, this was the second performance of it in a week, the previous one being at the Barbican with Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the BBC Symphony performance with its luxury casting of soloists Christine Brewer and Petra Lang. I am glad to report no emotional overload and that the tingle factor got me earlier in Haitink’s performance than in Saraste’s. The offstage effects at the RCM were occasionally both unbalanced or off-kilter, and the passage with off-stage horn against on-stage bassoon left the former too indistinct. Also there were the odd extraneous noises from rehearsals in other parts of the college (an Ivesian effect that presumably would not have been repeated at the second performance).

However, none of these slips dented the overall effect of this glorious Mahler performance. It left me uplifted and ecstatic, to which Haitink’s modest and completely characteristic acceptance of his honorary doctorate (“I am not a learned man”) added both a sense of awe and also thankfulness that I have witnessed so many wonderful performances by this greatest of conductors. I hope for many more with the exhilarating players that the Royal College of Music continues to produce. In short, a winner.

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