RCO/Haitink – Mozart and Bruckner – 21 March

Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Symphony No.9 in D minor

András Schiff (piano)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 March, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The Barbican Centre’s “Haitink at 75” celebration looks distinguished on paper in terms of visiting orchestras – those from Vienna, Berlin and Dresden, all closely associated with Bernard Haitink of course – but the limited choice of repertoire is yawn-making. Fifty percent of the six concerts feature Mahler (a composer being done to death anyway) and to have yet another Mahler 6 from either the LSO or Haitink, let alone combined, is definitely stretching it. A LSO Vaughan Williams symphony would have been mouth-watering, and Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Schumann, composers that Haitink conducts with distinction, are notable absentees. Of course, an inspired muse may settle on any or all of the concerts on offer.

The other celebrated orchestra in these birthday concerts is the Royal Concertgebouw, Haitink its conductor for many years. After this weekend’s pair of concerts it returns to the Barbican in June 2005 with Mariss Jansons (who will then be its Chief) in Petrushka and Brahms 2, the same programme he and the Pittsburgh Symphony brought to the Barbican a few years ago!

Coupling Mozart and Bruckner is tried and tested too, although, in the concerto, it was interesting that Haitink used antiphonal violins (very rare for him) with double basses (three of them) behind the left-centre cellos. What a shame he didn’t use this just-as-pertinent disposition in Bruckner. Maybe he was obliging András Schiff who always has this arrangement when conducting. And the strings were reduced in number, almost obligatory these days in classical repertoire it seems!

The highlight of the Mozart was the flowing, simply played Romanze in which the baleful woodwinds helped whip up some disturbance at the movement’s mid-point. Elsewhere, Schiff was more demonstrative, less in his inner sanctum, than he can be, although some whimsical dynamics and note-picking seemed more ’him’ than musically illuminating. He made a good job of Beethoven’s first movement cadenza and supplied his own for the finale. What stood out though was the exquisite orchestral playing and Haitink’s unaffected conducting, tragedy implied rather than underlined, a little too urbane maybe, but music and understatement do go very well together.

Bruckner is closely associated with Haitink (to the extent that he’s another ’oh, not again!’ composer). That said, this 9th proved to be the best of his recent UK Bruckner appearances and followed an indifferent 5th with the VPO (London) and a more inspiring 6th with Staatskapelle Dresden (Birmingham). With the RCO in splendid form, negotiating the tricky spots with ease, the outer movements fared best. The middle-placed Scherzo was belligerent more than violent, the Trio lacking edge. Either side, Haitink charted the huge first and third movements with typically seamless control, eddies of current sustained the first movement although the climax of the development could have seared more. The rather static-sounding third movement seemed too much ’one foot in the grave’ – Bruckner planned a finale, Haitink seemed to deny that fact – yet there was much that was compelling and concentrated, sonorously sounded (the brass finely balanced) carefully plotted and movingly played.

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