Prom 48: 26th August – Boston Symphony Two

Symphony of Psalms
Daphnis et Chloé (complete)

Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink

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Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 26 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For the second of his two Proms with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink played to his Francophile side by conducting Stravinsky, from his Parisian days in the late 1920s, and Ravel’s most extended score, the ’Choreographic Symphony’, Daphnis et Chloé.

This is repertoire that many would find an odd choice for Bernard Haitink, most usually known for his central European sensibilities, especially the great ’German’ Romantic symphonic canons of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler. Yet his refined ear, and his unfussy music-making, is a boon in such filigree-delicate scores; indeed, check the record catalogues and you’ll find that he is an acclaimed Debussyian and Ravelian; not least with three CDs of BSO Ravel including a complete Daphnis.

At last year’s Proms he also conducted Symphony of Psalms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus before the near-annual Beethoven 9. If anything, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus singing without scores, this was an even more idiomatic performance of the Stravinsky, one revelling in the crunchy harmonies and powerful spirituality of the Latin. From my position I found the balance near-ideal; Stravinsky’s reduced orchestration (minus cantabile instruments such as violins and clarinets) coming over lucidly, with Haitink fluid and responsive to the score’s demands in this nod to the important role Serge Koussevitzky had in the history of the Boston Symphony, which he directed for 25 years. He died 50 years ago this year; in 1929, he commissioned Stravinsky for Symphony of Psalms – and Honegger, Prokofiev et al – to celebrate the 50th-anniversary of the BSO.

For the Ravel, the choir, rather than sticking to their same vocal groups as for Stravinsky, arrayed themselves in small blocks, each containing SATB, creating a chessboard effect behind the orchestra, which enhanced the homogenous vocal balance. Their wordless contribution was just one facet of this glorious performance; other notables being sure-footed solo playing and Haitink’s sympathetic malleability to bring the best out of the score. It may have been a dancer’s nightmare, but would surely have met with Ravel’s approval. Among those soloists, one must mention the ripe horn solo, matched with the distinct individuality of each of the wind principals.

I admitted to Classical Source’s music editor that Daphnis et Chloé was not my favourite work at all. I find there can be many longueurs, especially at the beginning, which make it difficult to follow the stated scenario. In this performance, however, I opted not to follow the plot and listened solely to Ravel’s musical invention. Whilst I may not have finally cracked the work, Haitink was a secure and faithful guide. (Abbado has the same qualities in this music, as heard in his last concert with the London Symphony Orchestra – back in 1988.)

The select audience (this programme for some reason was less popular than the BSO’s Debussy/Martinu/Brahms Prom the night before) greeted the final bacchanal with a great ovation; eventually a relaxed-looking Haitink acquiesced and motioned that there would be an encore. As he turned to the orchestra and searched for a score on his stand he was heard to say “Now what?” – it was probably a surprise that he played Berlioz. Yet he characterised the ’Menuet des follets’ with his usual acute ear, which made me put on my mental wish-list a complete performance of The Damnation of Faust from him.

This concert brought into focus how good an orchestra the Boston Symphony remains. On the strength of this appearance with its Principal Guest Conductor it may well be without peer in the American orchestral league-table at present. With its Music Director position still to be filled after Seiji Ozawa’s departure at the end of the forthcoming season, one can only hope that such excellence can be secured for the foreseeable future.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Friday, 31 August, at 2 o’clock

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