Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at Barbican Hall – Bernard Haitink conducts Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony

Bruckner
Symphony No.5 in B flat

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink


Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 20 May, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Clive BardaMusical wisdom still seems to be that the Fifth is the most intractable of Bruckner’s symphonies – I well remember going with a musical, now virulently anti-Brucknerian friend who thought it the work of a mad man. The perceived formal problems that trouble some listeners in Bruckner’s finales seem to apply in the case of the Fifth to the first movement. Moreover, however well-played the performance, many conductors get caught up in and hyperventilate its austerity and radical contrast of material, which does inevitably lead to a sense of one damn thing after another, with some interpretations clinging to the coat-tails of the music’s undeniable grandeur and moments of seraphic timelessness – the familiar Brucknerian schtick.

Bernard Haitink, though, really has this symphony’s measure, the most important aspect being that he didn’t throw everything at the first movement. Always at the back of his mobile but measured approach was Bruckner’s extraordinary (even by his standards) process of home-key denial, in which he plays seriously complicated games with listeners’ expectations and subliminal, long-term aural memory. Bruckner provides us with any number of instantly recognisable thematic hooks; grinding away underneath, though, is an amazingly volatile (in some hands unstable) harmonic journey going on, replete with detours, reversals and wrong turnings, with the sat-nav only gradually, almost grudgingly revealing the goal.

Bernard Haitink. Photograph: Matthias CreutzigerHaitink presented it and the finale rather like a long-range weather forecaster, detailing all those writhing areas of turbulence, tightly coiled depressions and wobbly isobars all spiralling round and eventually dissolving into a strengthening high-pressure system in cloudless B flat. In purely intellectual terms, the Fifth’s first and last movements are great achievements, in which Bruckner solved the Rubik’s Cube of the enormous artistic problems he posed for himself. The wonder was that Haitink’s imperturbable conducting, strong on pulse and with the most economic gesture releasing the whole gamut of expression and tone, could deliver such a complete, 3D performance of the score (Leopold Nowak’s edition, I think).

The feeling of big-time resolution on hold in the first movement emphasised the slow movement’s remoteness, with a satisfyingly neutral but consolatory opening oboe solo, Haitink again supplying plenty of organic expansion at the same time as justifying the reduction of the main tune to a bell-like chime of just four notes in the incandescent climax. The way in which Haitink turned the corner from the Adagio’s surprisingly short and bleak coda into the scherzo (the same opening notes as the start of the preceding movement, only faster) was bracingly decisive, with a strong back-in-business feeling. He also revealed in the scherzo a wealth of detail and bar-line-blurring momentum far removed from beefy Austrian dance rhythms. The trio was a delight, garrulous and humorously characterised, all there at the flick of Haitink’s seemingly dour, methodical baton.

His hand, so sure in the mighty evasiveness of the first movement, was no less in control in the finale. The nod to Beethoven’s Ninth in the opening, quirky résumé sounded unforced, and for all the moments of compression and release, the music gathered its resources in an impressive build-up of tension yielding a fugue of breathtaking athleticism and a thrillingly rapturous conclusion. Haitink’s sublimely non-barnstorming, practical understanding of the music was the perfect fibre-optic conduit for its awesome but very human range and power, and was complemented by the veiled warmth and infinite subtlety of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s playing. This was a performance in which you really ‘got’ the Fifth.

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