Prom 71: Music First and Last

Symphony No.96 in D (Miracle)
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Almost at the end of this year’s Proms, and what could be more welcome than a coupling of two symphonic classicists, directed by the most classical – that is, interpretatively self-effacing – of present-day conductors.

Although Bernard Haitink is not known primarily as a Haydn conductor, his sane and unaffected approach to one of the lesser ’London’ symphonies is a welcome tonic to the overt point-making of numerous ’authenticists’. Best, in all senses, were the sanguine ’Andante’ (how did Haydn continually avoid blandness in such movements?), and the buoyant ’Menuetto’ – with its elegantoboe writing (a shame though about the restive audience). The outer movements are less interesting only because Haydn produced so many finer such movements in his symphonies and quartets of this period, but Haitink’s approach – incisive but never over-driven – made the most of their appealing character.

Both throughout his career and at the Proms, Haitink has put Bruckner at the forefront of his programming, and this account of the Fourth brought back memories of a memorable Seventh with the LSO at the Barbican some four years ago. The so-called ’Romantic’ is not quite so all of a piece as its successor – but, when given with such unobtrusive rightness as here, has a Schubertian ease all its own. The opening movement unfolded in broadly cumulative paragraphs, spacious and majestic. Some uncertain solo horn work was an unfortunate blemish, and brass playing throughout the work was not without a certain edge, but ensemble was otherwise excellent – with string playing that, in terms of London orchestras at present, is surely in a class of its own.

The performance was at its best in a wonderfully lucid ’Andante’, unerringly paced and its vast dynamic range scrupulously conveyed, and a biting though never brazen ’Scherzo’ – momentum subtly varied in a way that prevented any feeling of repetitiousness, with a ’Trio’ affecting in its winsome dance motion. Haitink adopted a notably flowing pace for the ’Finale’ – allowing its climactic peaks to emerge naturally, and with the awkward structural join from the development to the reprise securely negotiated. The coda – surely Bruckner’s finest formal afterthought – arrived with that sense of inevitability that marks out a seasoned and a great Brucknerian.

A packed Albert Hall gave Haitink an enthusiastic reception. Modest as ever, he pointedly took the score away with him on his final appearance – the mark of a musician for whom music has always been both the first and last consideration.

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