RCO/Haitink – Debussy and Shostakovich – 20 March

Debussy
La mer – Three symphonic sketches
Shostakovich
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 20 March, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Royal Concertgebouw is unquestionably one of the world’s finest orchestras, the listener invariably rewarded by secure and polished playing, an upholstered sound founded on a rich-toned string section.

But an orchestra – as does a conductor – needs to be responsive to the repertoire in hand. On this occasion the combined strengths of the RCO and Bernard Haitink did not seem suited to the elemental worlds which Debussy and Shostakovich evoke. The opening of La mer was certainly becalmed, though the dynamic level of the first few pages was above the ppp and pp markings. Later on, when the music becomes more animated, although there was commendable flowing movement, a lack of forward momentum and impulse was a consistent deficiency (so too in the Shostakovich). The cellos emoted their way through their famous passage, and Haitink took the Presque lent and Très modéré markings to extremes, which might have been effective had they not sounded out of context. Conversely, the coda’s Très lent was faster than these earlier moments, but the ripe playing from a golden-toned brass section was undeniably gorgeous.

Jeux de vagues stubbornly failed to glitter, and remained obstinately earthbound, with a climax sounding like that of a Tchaikovsky tone poem – not at all the sonority needed in this music. The final movement lacked a sense of the ominous at its outset, and was marred by some flawed string entries and an uncertain trumpet which, given the calibre of the orchestra, was as surprising as it was unexpected. Once again, the weight of sound was impressive, but Debussy’s graphic storm was observed from a position of safety. At no point did one feel caught up in the turbulence.

There was a similar lack of engagement with the torments that are rarely far from the surface in Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. The opening string phrases had plenty of depth – excellent double basses – but the subsequent tortuous violin lines were much too comfortable – a description which applies to this performance as a whole. The feeling of menace, of impending nemesis was simply absent. Loud climaxes were merely loud; the screaming chords which interrupt the course of the first and last movements, and which begin the fourth, were remarkable as sound, but not the harrowing nightmare they surely should be.

Haitink’s tempos were on the measured side – nothing necessarily wrong with that – but although I am not a metronome watcher, one can do as Stravinsky suggested, which is to use the markings as “a guide”. Many of Haitink’s speeds were way below those indicated – including the piccolo episode in the second movement – and contributed to a fateful lack of propulsion in music which needs to feel – however slow it is – that it is going somewhere.

One passage which really came to life was in the third movement in what would I suppose be termed ’formally’ the trio – when an ’oompah’ brass and percussion vamp accompanies mock reveille calls on the trumpet, answered by jeering string laughter and terrified scurrying in the woodwinds. This section had real character and – most importantly – danger, which the remainder of the movement, with its rather plodding overall pace, failed to conjure.

One sensed an air of heavy resignation through the world-weary brooding of the fourth movement passacaglia, though the flutter-tonguing flutes failed to chill the atmosphere, and the ambiguity of the seemingly optimistic start to the finale was made plain by some outstanding bassoon playing.

Indeed, the orchestral playing was impeccable, but the character of the music did not come to life; none of the exposed, raw nerve-endings as in performances by, say, Mravinsky, to whom the symphony is dedicated. As a demonstration of orchestral polish, this performance would be hard to beat; for an evocation of the dark world of Dmitri Shostakovich, one would have to look – and listen – elsewhere.

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