Royal College of Music – Bernard Haitink conducts Bruckner 8 [first performance]

Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 version, edited Leopold Nowak]

Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 25 June, 2012
Venue: Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Matthias CreutzigerThe awe-struck silence at the end of Bruckner’s most blazing peroration said it all. Pinned back in our seats for the best part of 90 minutes, the generous acoustic of the Royal College of Music’s Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall barely able to contain the sheer weight of sound, our applause was only cued by Bernard Haitink’s characteristic flip of his baton. Although the volume of applause could never achieve the decibels of the orchestra at full tilt, our ovation was long and generous – as was the players’. This was a very special evening.

While the public’s media-led attention towards young players might have been focused on the Southbank Centre over the last few days, I suspect the lasting impression of musical youth will be from the Royal College of Music. Haitink has been going there for at least a decade, rehearsing and performing pinnacles (yes, including Strauss’s Alpine Symphony) of the late-romantic repertoire including Mahler and Bruckner symphonies, all of which have been exceptional.

At the RCM, without commercial pressures on rehearsals, music-making is paramount, and Haitink has long epitomised that ideal. That the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall is relatively small – perhaps too small for such massive works – brings for the audience an intimacy with even the most gargantuan of musical edifices, and they don’t come much more gargantuan than Bruckner 8. Even in the climaxes there was an aural terrain that your ears seemed to be able to map out; indeed I’ve rarely felt a performance that was so tangible, making this Brucknerian view of evolution – from the opening’s ectoplasmic mire to the life-bolstering final coda – come to life.

The players from the Royal College of Music rose handsomely to the occasion, with some spectacular solo work matched by a collective ensemble that seemed as cool and calm as Haitink’s economic conducting style, his deep understanding of Bruckner’s music despatched without histrionics, just a clear beat and an unwavering view of the final destination.

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