Symphony in C
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 May, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

French classicism rubbed shoulders with French impressionism in the first half. Bizet’s delectable Symphony in C – Haydn, Mozart and Schubert rolled into one and speaking with an elegant French accent – found Bernard Haitink savouring this evergreen work, one full of élan, tenderness, wit and wonderful tunes. Haitink gave this music the utmost respect, drawing playing vital and sympathetic. Maybe he could have made the fugal episode of the Adagio just a little more expressively significant; otherwise this was a joyous, time-taken reading, the finale brought off with irrepressible dash. With all repeats observed, Bizet in C was deemed important not just a bright and breezy concert opener.

Good to see a conductor lose patience with between-movement hackers – why do people need to cough vociferously at every opportunity? A few raps on the lectern with his baton to quieten things having no effect, Haitink made it very clear that he wanted to get on with Bizet’s scherzo and would prefer to do so with people listening!

Two past LSO La mers of greatness come easily to mind – those of Celibidache and Boulez. Haitink joins them and confirmed my rather lukewarm reception to renditions under Andrew Davis and Kurt Masur from earlier this year. Haitink’s success, apart from securing playing of particular beauty and refinement, was his ability to dissolve the music’s textures from one to another without losing focus on important melodic strands; the removal of barlines allowed Debussy’s fluid expression its freedom, though not to the detriment of symphonic trajectory.

This was a realisation notable for timbral clarity and blend, subtlety of variegation (a paragraph would be needed for the different colours obtained from the cymbals), phrasal flexibility and a re-think on the ad lib fanfares in the final movement; a presence on his Concertgebouw recording, Haitink did without here. Put this music on a tight rein (as Masur did) or concentrate on primary tones (Davis’s failing) and it is restricted and debased. Haitink’s sensitivity revealed Debussy’s masterpiece at its most evocative and lucid. Truly outstanding La mers are not that frequent.

For Bizet, Haitink had reduced the strings. He deployed the LSO’s full resources for Beethoven (again, all repeats in place) without being tempted to double the (somewhat reticent) woodwind. Given with poise and polish, Haitink’s unforced momentum and the strings’ agility never allowed this No.7 to be too upholstered; it was quite diaphanous, in fact.

Beethoven’s forward impulse and dance spirit is at one with Haitink’s crispness of detail and rhythmic lift; his decorum presents something more balletic than Dionysian. The increase in emotional intensity he charted in the Allegretto was striking (as it had been in Bizet’s Adagio) especially given the initial reserve. If the finale was driven it was also pliable, albeit too fast perhaps in relation to the previous movements’ buoyancy. Few conductors seem to note the scherzo is marked Presto while the finale is a mere Allegro con brio. But Haitink’s sheer musicality won the day to bring a memorable concert to an uplifting close, one to grace the “LSO Live” CD catalogue in due course.

  • Concert repeated on 16 May at 7.30

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