VPO/Haitink Bruckner 5 – 5 May

Symphony No.5 in B flat

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 May, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This looked like being an evening to remember. With an orchestra able to take in the whole of the Bruckner tradition, and a conductor renowned for his control over long-term tonal syntax, Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic seemed set to deliver an authoritative interpretation.

That the VPO’s instrument vehicle was involved in a collision en route – the performance beginning 45 minutes late – does not account for the lacklustre outcome. Put simply, this was a reading rarely involving, and often uninspired. The first movement had promised much: the spacious expectancy of the ’Adagio’ introduction having an underlying tension that the main ’Allegro’ built upon in no small measure. Sonic architecture has long been the hallmark of Haitink’s conducting, and the contrast in motion between the main ideas was pointedly made. Yet, after a taut central development, the breathtaking return of the first theme in the home key was less than scintillating, and the coda decidedly short-winded.

Although Haitink’s basic tempo for the ’Adagio’ – surely the most humanly affecting of Bruckner’s slow movements – was fine, the music was under-characterised: bland in the case of the plaintive oboe melody, expressively generalised in the strings’ soulful response. Those touches of harmonic ambiguity which colour the former’s return were glossed over, giving this inward yet disquieting music a matter-of-fact air. Here and in the Scherzo, woodwind playing was surprisingly slipshod by VPO standards. The main portions of the latter movement, Bruckner’s most complex formally, were bracingly dispatched, yet the brass’s tendency to cover the strings at pivotal moments – such as in the pulsating closing bars – meant that the destined harmonic goal was audibly obscured.

It was, however, in the Finale – one of the crowning glories in all symphonies – that this performance disappointed most. The introduction was lamely delivered, and while the intricate first theme and its insouciant successor were finely articulated, the intervention of the chorale subject felt pompous rather than imposing. The elaborate fugal development was rushed through almost glibly, and though Haitink maintained tension through the curtailed reprise, his approach to the coda gave notice of a slowing in momentum that fatally undermined overall continuity. Surprisingly that this normally most unobtrusive of conductors should feel the need to ’stage manage’ the close in this way.

As it was, the chorale returned brazenly to cap the work in a blare of sound which served neither the grandeur of its inspiration nor the exhilaration of the process which it concludes – Bruckner as fait accompli rather than organic evolution. Audience reaction, instantaneous rather than momentarily stunned, said it all. The Fifth is not a symphony that responds to half measures – which, in almost all respects, was what it received from Haitink and the VPO on this occasion.

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