Haitink’s Heldenleben

Don Juan, Op.20
Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.11
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

David Pyatt (horn)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 12 December, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Bernard Haitink’s last scheduled London concert was on 2 November, with Staatskapelle Dresden. That is until Lorin Maazel pulled out of seven of his nine Schubert and Bruckner concerts; Haitink – for a welcome bonus at the tail end of his 75th-birthday year – filled the three final dates originally allocated to Maazel.

The first of these concerts in particular was a very intriguing prospect on paper – all Strauss – with a performance of Ein Heldenleben which I have been waiting to hear for over 20 years. As far as my memory serves me he conducted it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a visit to the Proms in 1983 and was scheduled to give it at one his first concerts with the LSO, from which he had to withdraw for an operation (“Parsifal” with Domingo went the same way). Expectations, then, were extremely high. I’m glad to report that I was not disappointed!

Haitink has a way with him that orchestras respond to – be it the LSO or, as I’ve reported before, the players from the Royal College of Music. The depth of string tone and togetherness of tutti chords are more noticeable than with so many other conductors (a slight violin disagreement over the placing of a dotted rhythm in the first movement of Strauss’s Horn Concerto No.1 being here the insignificant exception to the rule), and Haitink’s unfussy way acts as a lens direct to the heart of the music, rather than a focus on himself. In a word, Haitink is honest, and although it may be perverse to suggest it, here we had an honest Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, two of the works in the repertoire that are the exact opposite of modest!

Amidst the secure playing of the orchestra, Don Juan swaggered roguishly, showing off his manly prowess in the horn theme and his more feminine wiles in Roy Carter’s effortless oboe solo. The percussion – arrayed against the back wall – were very prominent; the back two acoustic boards of the canopy again in horizontal alignment from the previous night’s BBCSO concert when these two boards had been vertical, presumably to soak up excessive percussion volume. It’s a shame Haitink hadn’t requested the same alignment to tame what became a peculiarly aggressive glockenspiel!

David Pyatt – the LSO’s principal horn – took centre-stage for Strauss’s youthful and energy-packed First Horn Concerto and gave a typically brilliant performance, more relaxed than his Last Night of the Proms rendition and wearing his technical expertise lightly.

In Ein Heldenleben there was real power from the outset, the introductory section setting the scene with the hero in youthful prime had both a dramatic and musical passion, the Barbican acoustic glowing warmly even in Strauss’s most dense writing. The critics moved at a slower pace than one might have expected, more misguided (old, august, and simply not understanding of youth) than spiteful, while Gordan Nikolitch’s assumption of the role of hero’s wife (i.e. Strauss’s wife Pauline) was more mercurial and self-aware than the usual plain forceful rendition. The full power of battle ensued, melting into the extended passage of reminiscence, in which Strauss embroiders many themes from his earlier works. The hero’s farewell to life was no giving up the ghost: Haitink kept the thread of the hero’s larger-than-life personality to the end; the final horn and violin duet signifying the last conversation of hero and wife was topped by a resonant and memorable final chord. No resignation here, but firm and decisive, the hero letting go of life as he had lived it. Of course, the real hero here was Haitink.

  • Haitink conducts the LSO on 15 December (Mozart & Bruckner) and 19 December (Haydn & Mahler)
  • LSO

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