LSO/Haitink – Beethoven (2)

Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 November, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The second instalment of Bernard Haitink’s Beethoven symphony cycle (being recorded for LSO Live) embraced a wholly delightful Second Symphony and an uneven Eroica. That said, even the earlier work has more dam-busting qualities than Haitink revealed, although on their own elegant terms his conducting and the LSO’s lithe and expressive response were persuasive – from an emphatic and measured slow introduction (with perfect dovetailing to the Allegro con brio) to a finale that wasn’t rushed through but which had admirable spirit. In between, were a slow movement exquisitely shaped and pointed and a scherzo with its courtly good manners emphasised. Throughout, but especially in the first movement, accents could have bitten more but that would have disrupted Haitink’s classical through-line and smooth sound.

That Haitink is now adopting antiphonal violins is worthy of mention – a ‘late’ conversion to the seating arrangement that composers knew up until various points of the last century when conductors (Stokowski probably being the first) started to put the two groups of violins together. For the Second Symphony Haitink reduced the strings a little, but four double basses wasn’t really enough; despite their truculent ‘solo’ contributions, tuttis lacked foundation. Haitink singled out principal clarinet Andrew Marriner for particular applause; Marriner looked surprised, but he did contribute a wonderfully subtle trill in the Larghetto.

All eight basses were present for the ‘Eroica’ as were more strings, overall. If Haitink’s discretion in No.2 made less of its proto-Eroica capability, the ‘Eroica’ itself, for all the moment-by-moment felicities, lacked heft and revolution. Tempos were upbeat, although never crazy, but this music needs more space, a greater sense of imposition than Haitink found. That he, now, takes the first movement repeat seems more obedient than integral obedience (he said in an interview some years ago that he couldn’t see himself ever observing this particular repetition), and it felt superfluous here. But it was Haitink’s ‘lightness’ of approach that undermined the music; the ‘funeral march’ second movement lacked gravitas at this forward-moving tempo.

There was, though, some brilliant horn-playing in the Trio, the three parts wonderfully balanced, and the fire of the finale, the only time that the music really caught alight, was compelling. Yet, the coda, horns reigned in, didn’t really catch the mood, and, overall, Haitink seems to be somewhat hidebound with ‘authentic’ practices in terms of tempo and relationships, if not orchestral sound itself. This was beautiful Beethoven, intelligent, straightforward, and with a myriad of dynamics and honed blends; not quite enough for the ‘Eroica’, however.

One listened with an ear for the future CDs – the (irritating) all-too-audible hand-stopping of timpani notes, noisy page-turns (especially in the mysterious turn into the Eroica’s development) and the odd ‘off’ note from the horns. And, conversely, one also marvelled at the LSO’s corporate and solo response to this venerable maestro.

In conjunction with the symphonies, the next-door Guildhall School of Music and Drama is mounting all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (a different student pianist for each sonata) as preludes to Haitink’s symphony concerts, and in either the Music Hall of the GSMD or the Barbican concert hall. On this occasion it was the Barbican; the sonatas Opus 2/2 and the Pathétique. The former made an impressive appearance for Diana Ionescu (born 1981) who played with focus, concentration, dynamic variety and very appealing lyrical shaping. She drew warm, lucid colours from the piano and also found apt demonstration. Less memorable was Anton Lyakhovsky’s Pathétique; he (born 1979) drove hard through the outer movements with little to say about them (and his technique wasn’t infallible) and the famous slow movement was curiously staid and rather opaque.

  • Symphonies 2 & 3 repeated 22 November with the pre-concert recital in the GSMD’s Music Hall @ 6 o’clock
  • LSO
  • GSMD
  • Barbican

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