Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink in London – 1

Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
La mer – three symphonic studies
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 14 March, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Bernard HaitinkA welcome return for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and a previous music director (for over 25 years), Bernard Haitink. This current tour celebrates Haitink’s 80th-birthday. The renowned conductor has reined-in his podium movements (which were never that outrageous) to a minimum of elegant directions, an economy of gesture that proved most effective.

The Mozart, with pared-down string forces, was perhaps the weakest performance of the evening, with the occasional patch of rugged ensemble. There was magic here though, also – particularly with Haitink uncovering deeper elements than normally register in the first movement exposition, which then linked to the more exploratory passages of the development. The Minuet and Trio was a little short of charm; the finale attempted to erase all memories of any shortcomings by celebrating the youth of Haitink’s players (either I’m getting old or the average age is decreasing – the policemen syndrome?), by projecting a genuinely open, bright demeanour.

Haitink’s recording of La mer is one of the glories of his discography. Age has not diminished his interpretation. There was loving, and lovely, attention to detail. All was in perfect balance. Individual contributions were more inspired than in the Mozart, with the teasing oboe and sweet violin adding effortlessly to the mix. Perhaps the cellos could have found greater richness, but the first movement heralded a fine interpretation. The second, ‘Jeux de vagues’, displayed fantastic attention to detail and most notable for the impression of vast elemental forces in action, while the finale, with magnificent brass chorales, also conjured moments of the loftiest peace.

It was with the London Symphony Orchestra that Haitink set down his most recent Beethoven Seventh (issued on LSO Live). Here, in the LSO’s residency, we heard his ‘Concertgebouw take’. It would be easy to wax lyrical about the Orchestra’s excellence – the gorgeously together woodwind choir, the bite to the sforzandi, the exquisite mirroring of flutes and violins in the lead-in to the first movement proper (which included a repeat of the exposition), the piping wind in the third movement, the almost oppressive accents of the finale. But this was Haitink’s triumph. The Allegretto showed his strengths perfectly. Beautifully sculpted, this was the perfect example of organic growth, with the overall crescendo brilliantly judged by all in a true union of conductor and players. Only towards the end of the symphony did Haitink’s gestures become significantly more animated, as the great double bass-pedal build-up gained in momentum.

There followed a deserved standing ovation. No encore, but none was needed.

  • Second RCO/Haitink Barbican Hall concert on Sunday 15 March at 3 p.m. (Schumann Piano Concerto, Murray Perahia, and Bruckner Symphony No.9)
  • Barbican

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