Prom 47: 25th August 2001

Photograph of Bernard Haitink
Photographer: Clive Barda/L Schirmer

Debussy
Prélude a L’apres-midi d’un faune
Martinu
Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony No.6)
Brahms
Symphony No.2 in D

Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink

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Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It’s been ten years since the Boston Symphony last played at the Proms, and several since Bernard Haitink appeared there. His undemonstrative, musicianly manner is always a pleasure to experience, and so it proved in tonight’s concert.

Martinu is not a composer with whom Haitink has previously been associated, but his six symphonies offer much interpretative scope for a conductor of such symphonic credentials. No.6, more correctly known as Fantaisies symphoniques, is a good place to start. No less intrinsically symphonic than his five numbered works of the 1940s, this elusive score is the focal point, conceptually and expressively, for all Martinu’s music from his last decade: a musical confession which distils his creative ethos.

Texturally it’s also one of Martinu’s most inventive works, the shimmering haze of the first and second movements the ’primordial soup’ out of which a powerful thematic logic will develop. Like Janacek, Martinu is never afraid of unorthodox instrumental combinations or harmonic spacings to convey emotion. The chorale pattern that features strongly in this work, as in many others from the period, is a prime instance of an idiom reworked with endless resourcefulness. The elegiac feel of the first movement’s outer sections, held at bay in the capricious central scherzo, returns with renewed intensity in the finale. For all its tragic undertones, this is essentially music of resigned acceptance; no more so than in the closing bars, as heartfelt a symphonic ending as has been written.

If Haitink marginally overstated the pathos of this last movement, he paced the first two with an unerring sense of forward motion, capturing the incisive expression of the scherzo (did Jerome Moross know this music?), and encouraging the BSO to give of their considerable best – not least Concert-master Malcolm Lowe in the first movement’s plaintive cadenza-like passage. Martinu’s symphonic output would profit from further such advocacy.

Earlier, Haitink’s account of the Debussy found an appropriate chasteness amid the rapt expression. This is never an easy work with which to open a concert, as the attentiveness of players – and audience! – is far from certain. Perhaps Haitink assumed a falling-off of attention later in the evening, as his reading of Brahms’s Second Symphony had a no-nonsense, business-like air (no exposition repeat) surprising from one whose Boston recording of the work brought out a ruminative, autumnal quality such as Calum MacDonald rightly underlined in his programme note.

As it was, the first movement flowed placidly by, gaining little intensity in the fraught counterpoint of the development, with only a judiciously phrased horn solo going into the coda to sound a more equivocal response. The ’Adagio’ similarly lacked variation in mood and texture to offset its tendency to dourness, though the intermezzo was enticingly done, with real lightness of touch and the right degree of ’grazioso’. The finale was rumbustious rather than exhilarating, a convincing end to a very decent performance of a symphony which always seems to bring the house down. Phlegmatic as always, Haitink responded with an enjoyable rendition of Brahms’s First Hungarian Dance (quite likely the most played Proms encore), and no more.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 30 August, at 2 o’clock

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