Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink in London – 2

Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Murray Perahia (piano)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 15 March, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Bernard HaitinkOver the weekend of 20/21 March 2004, in celebration of his 75th-birthday, Bernard Haitink was reunited with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for two concerts at the Barbican Hall – on the first night (a Saturday) it was Debussy’s La mer and Shostakovich 8; on the following afternoon it was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 (with András Schiff) and a complementary D minor work, Bruckner 9.

Five years on, Haitink returned with the Concertgebouw to the Barbican Hall and conducted – yes! – Debussy’s La mer on the Saturday night (this time coupled with Mozart and Beethoven symphonies) and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony on the Sunday afternoon.

Not that I’m complaining! I was not disappointed in 2004, nor was I disappointed in 2005 when he conducted the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra – in Bruckner 9! – and nor this present weekend.

Haitink’s Bruckner performances don’t radically change. His sense of architecture is secure and his trajectory unerring. The playing of the Concertgebouw Orchestra was here typically glorious, from its nine double basses to its burnished quartet of Wagner tubas. Haitink’s trademark technique, left-fist or simply an open claw in the air to highlight block chords or important entries, was used to typical effect, and his sense of this music’s infinity (its vastness, like a whole universe) was always on display.

Of course, you wait for years for great performances of such works to come along, and here – within just under four weeks – two come together. Haitink’s did not displace Zubin Mehta’s breathtaking performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the more-open acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall on 19 February. I wouldn’t have been without either of them. In the Barbican Hall, the audience was transfixed, and the silence following the Adagio was long enough, as Haitink – almost in time – closed his score before the tumultuous applause and standing ovation.

Murray Perahia. ©Sony Music EntertainmentYet, perhaps the most marvellous performance in this concert was at its beginning. Joined by long-standing collaborator Murray Perahia, the work in question was Schumann’s Piano Concerto, not a work I particularly like, but in Perahia’s responsive hands and with Haitink’s subtle accompaniment (the end of the first movement conducted without a baton), my view of the work was overwhelmingly challenged.

Perahia is a non-fussy, concentrated player. He rarely takes his eyes off the keyboard and wears a look of dispassionate concentration, yet he matches Haitink in playing the long game. Matched by the exquisite wind playing – particularly principal oboist Alexei Ogrinichouk – and the orchestra’s favoured tight formation, there was a unanimity of purpose here that one rarely gets in concertos.

Perhaps Haitink’s decision to pare-down the strings (just four double basses, six cellos, the rest in proportion) and to use ‘period’ timpani allowed Schumann’s musical arguments that much clearer. Certainly, orchestral details jumped out. Unusually, the Concertgebouw swaps clarinets and bassoons so that the former sit behind the oboes and the latter sit behind the flutes. As in the Beethoven the previous night, horns sit immediately adjacent to the bassoons and trumpets similarly to the clarinets. In the Schumann, as the discursive ‘Intermezzo’ gives way to the finale, it is horns, bassoons and clarinets that kick-start it in a beautifully judged chorale.

Full of such carefully crafted features, Perahia, Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra reinvented Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

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