LSO/Haitink – Beethoven (4)

Overture – Leonore No.3
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)

Paul Lewis (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 20 April, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Returning to the Barbican to continue his cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies, Bernard Haitink was to have partnered Murray Perahia in the Emperor Concerto. Perahia, continuing to rest his hand after a recurring complaint, withdrew and it was Paul Lewis that ended this programme, for the second time of asking.

Whether Perahia would have allowed the tape to run, I don’t know, but the LSO Live microphones (recording the symphonies) were rearranged to capture the Emperor, which indicates that there is a chance Lewis’s performance will be made available on LSO Live. It certainly deserves to be for it recreated the Emperor completely afresh, almost as if you’d never heard it before, bringing not only a vitality to the martial louder sections, but a fantastically soft touch and a need for the listener to lean forward to catch every nuance.

This was a beautifully gauged performance that was notable for its clearly lit trajectory, quiet commitment and cumulative command. It also did the near-impossible: reinvesting faith in what is all-too-easy a war-horse, applauded for its reputation and nickname. That Lewis has the measure of it, with the expert accompaniment of both conductor and players in not just sure-footed but inspired support, there is no doubt. His rendition was indeed a joy.

In fact it was rather like ‘counting with Haitink’. We started with the Third Leonore Overture, strong and dramatic in Haitink’s hands, followed by a playful account of the Fourth Symphony, with its delicate and sometimes outrageous woodwind interplay as well as antiphonal violins making sense of Beethoven’s echoing string writing, before the Fifth Piano Concerto.

Such a sequential approach to concert programming, although presumably coincidental, could be dryly didactic, but here was intensifying in its power, certainly finding an intriguing solution as to how to place the Fourth Symphony in a complete cycle.

If my eyes were not deceived it seems as if Haitink is continuing to rediscover the symphonies in the new (well, not so new now) Jonathan Del Mar Bärenreiter edition, although – characteristically – he never needed to open the score on his stand. He arrives at the Fifth and Eighth symphonies on the 24th and 25th and the First and Ninth (Choral) symphonies follow on the 29th and 30th.

Apart from a Vienna Philharmonic appearance in June in the Barbican’s “Great Performers” series pairing Mozart and Shostakovich, there are – currently – no other scheduled Haitink appearances in London. That will no doubt be partially rectified with the announcement of this year’s Proms season. Otherwise his only forthcoming LSO commitment is to help open the Salle Pleyel in Paris in September with a reprise of the Beethoven project in two programmes. The 2006-07 LSO season is notable for Haitink’s absence, as is that season’s “Great Performers”. Perhaps there will be two possible saviours to the situation: the Royal College of Music – where he has conducted student forces annually in October – and the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall, scheduled for June 2007: a Haitink concert is always a cherishable one.

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