New York Philharmonic/Haitink – Strauss’s Don Quixote & Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

Don Quixote – Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op.35
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Carter Brey (cello) & Cynthia Phelps (viola)

New York Philharmonic
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 10 November, 2011
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Bernard haitink conducting the New York Philharmonic in November 2011. Photograph: Chris LeeFrom the first down-beat there was impressive quality of sound (the strings full and weighty) from the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink, the playing more enlivened and the ensemble tighter than I have heard from this orchestra in a long time. You can add to that wider dynamics, more incisive accents and rhythms, and music-making that was conspicuously focused, engaged and energetic. The older Haitink gets the more he seems to resemble Eugene Ormandy from the back (with the exception of some of left-hand cues and gestures). And, like the Ormandy I saw during his last decade with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall appearances, here was an elder statesman delivering thrilling performances with a strong point of view.

Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote tries too hard to be too many things: cello concerto, elaborate theme and variations, descriptive symphonic poem based on Cervantes’s novel, and a showpiece for virtuoso orchestra. Carter Brey made a convincingly romantic, passionate Quixote, and Cynthia Phelps a refreshingly extrovert Sancho Panza. Haitink’s current view of the work is worlds away from his Philips recording of four decades ago, with far more expressive phrasing, rubato, dynamics, and detailed phrasing — yet keeping the tone-painting rigorously sane and straightforward, painting a ‘reality-based’ world in contrast to Brey’s flights of fancy. It was a performance that made me re-think the work.

Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony brought much the same approach as Haitink’s recording with the London Symphony Orchestra five years ago – the swift first movement with remarkable hairpin turns in timbre and color; a faster-than-usual ‘Scene by the brook’ that seemed more relaxed and bucolic than accounts at markedly slower tempos; a light touch to ‘Happy gathering of country folk’; a fiery ‘Storm’; and a ‘Shepherds’ Thanksgiving’ that carried much the same relaxed mood as the second movement. Accents and staccatos were percussive and incisive, likely to counteract some of the acoustic shortcomings that still plague Avery Fisher Hall, and the dissonances at the end of the ‘Storm’ were startling – almost Straussian – in their impact.

During Lorin Maazel’s recent tenure the Philharmonic was consistently interesting, often provocative, with world-class playing. Things have been uneven for the last couple of years, but Haitink’s was a genuinely excellent program from top to bottom. Next week he conducts Haydn and Bruckner

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