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

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

Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 June, 2012
Venue: Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Clive BardaBernard Haitink’s visits to the Royal College of Music have become keenly anticipated events. Understandably. It’s tended to be the music of Bruckner and Mahler (with some Shostakovich and Strauss along the way) that Haitink has conducted with such memorable results. Bruckner was on the menu again, the mighty Eighth Symphony, here played for a second time – to mostly sublime and stupendous effect.

The Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall is vibrant and ambient and then some, so that fortissimos can be overloud. Furthermore the treble quotient needs to be tamed – violins can be shrill, brass edgy – and the bass response requires boosting. There’s no doubting though that the air resounds!

The music-making was as lively as the acoustic, an inspiring meeting of youth and experience. Over a perfectly formed 80 minutes, Bernard Haitink unfolded Bruckner 8 with spacious dignity, free of exaggeration but without denuding the agony and ecstasy that makes Bruckner’s music so inimitable.

The first movement included a rapt episode of shimmering strings over which oboe and horn principals created vistas of wonderment. The scherzo was superb, with sweep and locomotive power, its curves and elegancies attended to with equal connection, the trio contrastingly beatific, Bruckner’s request for three harps (it’s one part) granted.

The Adagio was the least successful movement albeit by just a few degrees. Serene, yes, but a little too restless, needing more time to express itself. Even so, this was still Bruckner’s Parsifal, a search for the Holy Grail – and an in-depth experience. However, it’s a shame, after decades of conducting Robert Haas’s edition, that Haitink now opts for Leopold Nowak’s version that accepts ‘the cut’ in this movement, an excision of numerous bars that Bruckner may or may not have agreed to. Haas’s greater circumspection allows the Adagio a higher mountain to climb – to advantage, although Haitink covered the deletion artlessly. The climax was towering and organically reached, the second cymbal clash employing smaller instruments to fiercer effect.

The finale was a tour de force, thundering in with brassy exuberance, Haitink then balancing the music’s stealth and solemnity with candour, the playing of the RCM Symphony Orchestra – secure, confident and committed throughout – finding a depth of feeling that was arresting. The lengthy coda was less awed than it can be but fitted perfectly what had preceded it and where the symphony was always going.

The capacity and attentive audience – rarely a cough, never a mobile – greeted the Heaven-reaching peroration with a few seconds of silence rather than crashing-in with applause. Such a response makes a difference: no competition here to shout the first “bravo”.

Bernard Haitink is due back at the RCM this time next year. How about an English-music programme for a change, pieces that he has recorded? Elgar’s First Symphony would be ideal, preceded by either Vaughan Williams’s explosive Fourth or contemplative Fifth. Sorted!

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