Hooray for Haitink

Symphony No.2 in C minor (Resurrection)

Donna Brown (soprano)
Birgit Remmert (mezzo-soprano)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 15 December, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

In a very literal sense, I waited 25 years for this concert.Despite the claims by Serge Dorny, outgoing Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the London Philharmonic, who – in his opening remarks – said this was one of the Orchestra’s president’s favourite works, Haitink had not conducted Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Britain for over 25 years. Haitink opened the LPO’s season at the Royal Festival Hall, coming to the end of his tenure as Principal Conductor, on 23 September 1977 and has not, to my knowledge, returned to the work anywhere else in the UK since then.

Given that I had not even visited London by 1977 and would not discover Mahler for another three years (the Resurrection, courtesy of the LPO and Klaus Tennstedt), then there was no way that I could have known, at the time, what I was missing. However, since then, a Haitink Mahler 2 I was waiting for with bated breath, especially after his utterly convincing, and totally moving, Mahler 3 at the Proms in 1999 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (probably the single most overwhelming performance in a concert hall I have ever had, which left me emotionally overwrought and in tears). And the hoping was not without danger, as Haitink had – unfortunately – cancelled his scheduled performances with the London Philharmonic during the previous two seasons (including a Mahler 3. Thus to arrive at the hall last December there was relief all round that, Michelle DeYoung’s indisposition apart, the forces were exactly as billed.

So, given that 25-year wait, I feel no remorse in leaving my review a further month. It has been a luxury to be able to allow a performance to settle in my mind with no other live concerts to obscure my view of it. In passing it also makes me muse on the inappropriate nature of overnight reviews which can barely assimilate a performance, let alone weigh its value objectively.

And, yes, this was a truly magnificent performance: vital, anguished, passionate, cohesive and achingly beautiful. All the pitfalls of Mahler, the worry (for the audience as well as performers) of whether the offstage effects will come off, let alone the sometimes disparate orchestral writing, were banished in as secure a conductorial performance you could ever wish for, Haitink alert to all the musical and emotional nuances of the music.

It surely goes without saying that musicians play their heart out for Haitink. He is musical through and through, never (it seems, at least in performance) histrionic, with only the composer’s intentions in mind.This cuts to the heart of the argument and, despite the fact that Haitink is wonderful to watch (many a time a bad Covent Garden production was made tolerable by being able to concentrate on Haitink’s conducting), it is never showy. All his gestures and mannerisms are for the benefit of the performers, and – to me – time and time again, with whichever orchestra, Haitink (to misquote an archaic advert) “refreshes the [orchestral] parts other conductors cannot reach.”

There was a convincing architecture to the whole edifice. From the primeval energy that typifies the opening movement – Haitink rising to the climaxes with his players energised by their collective power – via the sweet-toned second movement, where the pizzicato passages jumped to prominence in high relief, the jocular middle movement fashioned out of the Wunderhorn song about St Anthony’s sermon to the fishes and Birgit Remmert’s suitably dark-hued tones in “Urlicht”, to the hard-won finale, with its final choral salvation, this was a performance that presented the work in the best possible light (primeval or otherwise!). The off-stage effects were beautifully managed, and expertly balanced with the musicians on stage, with the only caveat for the whole evening being the slightly too-dry acoustic of the off-stage bands. The London Philharmonic Choir (trained by Neville Creed) was as enraptured as the appropriately and wildly enthusiastic audience (there was a noticeable, but all-too-rare, buzz in the foyers afterwards), and sang with urgent concentration.

A hugely impressive range of microphones recorded the performance, the programme revealing that it was for “archive purposes”. Given the nature of the occasion and the quality of the performance I hope that – in the same way as Haitink’s Paris Mahler 6 and Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande have been released on Naïve and his Janáček Covent Garden Jenufa with Karita Mattila (Erato 0927-45330-2) – it will find its way onto disc before too long, perhaps as an LPO box set to celebrate the 75th-birthday of its president (March 2004)?

Haitink enthusiasts have fewer chances of catching the maestro in London now his Covent Garden directorship has ended. Rather like the proverbial London omnibus a forthcoming dearth is followed by three appearances in May! He brings the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to the Royal Festival Hall (5 May) for Bruckner 5, and then conducts two Brahms programmes at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra (17/18 & 21/22 May). However, those needing an immediate Haitink fix can hot-tail it to the Royal College of Music, on 31 January and 1 February where he conducts the student orchestra Mahler 6. Also watch out for news regarding his EUYO Prom this summer.

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