Sunday 15 March 2009

Concertgebouw/Haitink - Mozart, Debussy, and Beethoven, 14 March 2009

Barbican Hall

Mozart – Symphony no.35 in D major, ‘Haffner’, KV 385
Debussy – La mer
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s two weekend concerts with Bernard Haitink afford London a slightly belated opportunity to celebrate Haitink’s eightieth birthday, which fell earlier this month. Mozart’s Haffner Symphony opened the present programme, in an excellent performance. (How rarely one can say that nowadays when it comes to Mozart!) The smallish orchestra – ten first violins, with other strings scaled accordingly – was not prevented from voicing a full sound, though that ineffable Viennese sweetness of tone was missing. Nevertheless, the bright, rejoicing sound of D major, open strings and all, was unmistakeably to be heard. The Concertgebouw strings offered commendable lightness of articulation without any of the fussy down-side that characterises so many modern performances. Clarity, Haitink, showed can easily be married to warmth, just as in his treasurable Glyndebourne DVD of Le nozze di Figaro. In every movement, the tempo sounded just right, which is not to say, as I once heard Sir Georg Solti absurdly claim, that, in Haydn and Mozart, there is only one correct tempo for a movement. Haitink, however, convinced us, for the duration of the performance, that this might be the case. He was not afraid, especially during the opening Allegro con spirito, to relax when the music suggested this. The Andante flowed with beauty and grace, light in the sense of an outdoor serenade, a quality further suggested by the ravishing Harmoniemusik. Repeated violin notes were sounded with precision, yet also with an affection that looked forward to Beethoven’s metronome joke in his Eighth Symphony. Resisting modern fads, Haitink took the minuet three-to-a-bar, much to its advantage. The tempo was not slow but it retained aristocratic poise. There was a welcome slight relaxation for the graceful trio. The Presto finale was lively without descending into an absurd dash, as so often it can. Here and throughout the symphony, the inner parts teemed with life. Splendid echo effects attested to the players’ virtuosity. Especially memorable was a delectable oboe solo from Lucas Macías Navarro. I was intrigued also to note the occasional string appoggiatura: not at all what I was expecting but tastefully accomplished.

Debussy is another favourite composer for Haitink, his Concertgebouw recording of La mer a classic of the gramophone. There was a more audible precision to this 2009 reading; it evinced an almost Boulezian clarity, albeit without the impression of X-ray analysis. Certainly the opening of De l’aube à midi sur la mer had not the slightest sense of vagueness. This did not, however, detract from its mystery; there was most definitely a sense that something was about to happen. Woodwind solos from flute (Emily Beynon) and oboe (Navarro again) were breathtaking in their evocative excellence, as was Navarro’s beguiling duet with leader Vesko Eschkenazy. Throughout, Haitink judged orchestral balances to perfection, likewise the music’s harmonic momentum. Thus could the triumph of midday truly sound earned. Jeux de vagues was wonderfully playful, skittish even, a showcase for orchestral virtuosity, which yet always remained at the service of the music. Haitink unerringly caught the sense of the waves’ ebb and flow, and there were magical moments aplenty, not least from the two harps, triangle, woodwind, and the Concertgebouw brass. In the final movement, there was a sense not only of its titular dialogue between wind and sea but also of the battle between them. There was also, however, a great delicacy to be heard, which never veered towards the precious. The ravishing, seamless beauty of high violins provided a perfect setting for Jacques Meertens’s clarinet solo to weave its magic, its ‘winding down’ judged perfectly – once again – by Haitink, without ever sounding unduly micro-managed. I was a little surprised by the degree of vibrato employed by the brass, but it helped acknowledge the often overlooked Russian antecedents to Debussy’s music, Mussorgsky in particular. There was an especially imposing quartet of three trombones and tuba, which did not give the slightest hint of brashness. The final crescendo and accelerando were once again judged to perfection.

Haitink has clearly re-thought his Beethoven, as we heard in his cycle of the symphonies with the LSO. Much of this has been to good effect, yet I did not find his account of the Seventh Symphony entirely successful; that said, my reservations related almost entirely to the final movement. That Haitink meant business was clear from the fact that his purposeful stride to the podium was followed almost immediately by a downbeat and then by a crisp opening chord, pristine woodwind very much to the fore. The introduction to the first movement was nicely persistent, possessed of an absolute surety of where it was heading; release was therefore attained with a minimum of fuss but far from a minimum of effect. Once again, one noted the care with articulation and balances, which yet never drew attention to itself in any of the bizarre ways that so often mar so-called ‘radical’ accounts. However, I found the trumpets a little too prominent. Sometimes, they pointed rhythms to great effect; at other times, they simply stood out to no particular reason. I could not quite work out what Haitink was trying to accomplish there. Ample compensation was provided by the ravishing woodwind solos in the recapitulation. The celebrated coda, of which it is alleged that Weber commented that it showed Beethoven ‘ripe for the madhouse’, provoked a continuous build-up of bass tension, albeit in a more understated fashion than one often hears.

The Allegretto was at least as fast as in Haitink’s LSO reading. There was absolutely nothing of the dirge to this account, yet I wondered whether it was perhaps just too swift. In the end, I thought not, but it would probably be as well not to try this at home. The climaxes were truly awe-inspiring, born of and yet transcending the movement’s inexorable tread. This, then, proved a terrible processional indeed, although the turn to the major mode brought necessary consolation. The string fugato section presented an almost incredible contrapuntal clarity and direction.

Rhythm was king in the scherzo, though it never sounded brutal, as it could, for instance, under Karajan. The trio was considerably faster than ‘tradition’ would have us hear it. There are swings and roundabouts here but the tension Haitink accrued could not be gainsaid. I especially liked the Harmoniemusik, which reminded us of the music’s origins, at least according to the Abbé Stadler, in a Lower-Austrian pilgrims’ hymn. A test of a good performance of this scherzo and trio for me is whether I become impatient with the repeats; I did not on this occasion feel even the slightest temptation to consult my watch. However, the ending had an odd sense of the throwaway to it.

Sadly, as mentioned above, I was not at all convinced by the finale. It was very fast, which can work, but here the speed sounded as if it were allied to unsmiling application of an imaginary metronome. The trumpets, however well they played, did not help in this respect, once again unduly prominent in their underlining of the all-too-grim grim forward tread. I wanted the music to breathe but instead felt bludgeoned, not a feeling I generally associate with Haitink. Yet at the same time, he was curiously unwilling at the end to let the horns have their head, granting a paradoxical impression of ‘restrained bludgeoning’. The unrelenting quality of this movement might well have appealed to those who, incomprehensibly to me, favour the bandmaster approach of Toscanini in this repertoire. I was left hankering after Furtwängler.