Monday 16 March 2009

Perahia/Concertgebouw/Haitink - Schumann and Bruckner, 15 March 2009

Barbican Hall

Schumann – Piano concerto in A minor, op.54
Bruckner – Symphony no.9 in D minor

Murray Perahia (piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

The first of the two Haitink/Concertgebouw concerts had been for the most part very fine. My sole disappointment, albeit a major one, concerned the final movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I am happy to report that I entertained no reservations whatsoever concerning this Sunday afternoon concert.

It helps, of course, to have a soloist of the calibre of Murray Perahia. His exquisite touch is never merely pretty, though one suspects that he would be incapable of making an ugly sound at the piano if he tried – rather as one can tell the same of Liszt from his compositions. This would be of little import were it not for Perahia’s profound musical understanding, enhanced by his long-term study of Schenkerian analysis. There is more than one way to skin even a tonal cat, but Schenker clearly works for Perahia, as heard in his organicist projection of the work’s fundamental structure (Ursatz) and structural levels.

Perahia and Haitink seemed throughout to be of one interpretative mind, enabling a chamber-musical collaboration between soloist and orchestra, reserving Romantic confrontation for climactic moments, which therefore registered with all the greater musical power. Schumann’s supremely poetic rêveries were often as much orchestral as pianistic, and were sometimes heard at tempi, which, viewed ‘objectively,’ might appear too slow, but here seemed utterly natural. Flexibility was all, so much so that one barely noticed it. The Concertebouw’s woodwind principals sounded at least as fine as they had during the previous night’s La mer. Alexei Ogrintchouk, so fine a soloist at the Proms in 2007 and 2008, almost bade fair to steal the limelight from Perahia with his stunning solos at the openings to the first movement exposition and recapitulation. But then Perahia’s cadenza, building from Bachian polyphony to Brahmsian tumult reminded us who was a little more than first among equals.

The second movement was a true intermezzo, never heavy but likewise never trivial. Beautifully judged rubato from all concerned and exquisite orchestral balancing from Haitink and his players lent the movement the aura of a chamber Kinderszenen. The textural clarity that marked this performance throughout was, if anything, still more marked in the finale, especially in its contrapuntal passages. Perahia and Haitink again located Schumann rightly between Bach and Brahms. The movement was always clearly goal-oriented without falling into the trap of sounding unduly driven. Again, every tempo and every tempo variation sounded just ‘right’. This was a truly distinguished performance. There was even, towards the end, a very occasional wrong note, just to reassure us that Perahia was human after all.

Coming so soon after the Royal Festival Hall performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony from Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, comparisons would doubtless have been made by many in the audience. It is difficult to imagine that any comparative odium would have attached to Haitink and the Concertgebouw. Last month’s performance probably captured the palm in terms of ravishing orchestral beauty; Vienna has a tendency to do so. And that performance, as I made clear at the time, was a fine one indeed, never more so than in its final bars, ‘numinous to a degree’. Haitink’s account, however, was not only darker; it was truly devastating.

From the outset, this seemed on the cards, the opening as grimly ominous as any since Furtwängler. The darkness of the orchestral bass line was immediately apparent, contrasting starkly with the once again ravishing work of the orchestra’s woodwind soloists: Ogrintchouk again and the equally magnificient flautist, Kersten McCall. Haitink’s reading of the vast opening movement was impassioned yet never impetuous; it took as long as it needed but not a second longer. There was, as in all of the greatest interpretations, a supreme inevitability to the solemn onward tread: not antithetical to ‘foreground’ colour, but leaving one in no doubt that the latter arose from the former. The silences were as terrifying as the great orchestral unisons; likewise those strange periods of apparent stillness, in reality anything but, as Bruckner approaches the atonal threshold. Fine Mahlerian though he may be, I have often felt that Haitink’s sensibility is more closely attuned to Bruckner: elemental rather than neurotic. Yet I fancied that I heard a premonition of the march of souls on Judgement Day from the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Intentional or no, the resemblance was striking, albeit with one crucial distinction. Here, in Bruckner’s cosmic drama, the destination was far from clear; greater struggle would be required to attain anything akin to resolution or redemption, let alone resurrection. Approaching the ‘dear God’ to whom the symphony is dedicated seemed at this point almost as impossible as in Schoenberg’s likewise unfinished Moses und Aron. Baleful trombone quasi-equale prepared the way for a final statement of desolation, granite-like in its implacability.

At the opening of the scherzo – no jokes here... – I missed a little the sheer weight of sound from the previous month’s Viennese performance. Haitink’s tempo sounded faster too, arguably more scherzo-like. I was taken by the lumbering, almost outsize playfulness, if I may put it that way, of the trio’s opening: a strange mixture of the consoling and the unsettling. These, we were reminded, are tales of the gods – or of God: almost a Cosmic Pulses of the late nineteenth century. (Both Bruckner and Stockhausen were possessed of a truly mystical faith.) Haitink’s long-term strategy truly made itself felt in the return of the scherzo. Now it was weightier, far from a mere re-statement. As Heraclitus taught us, no man can step into the same river twice.

The conductor’s command of the score and its implications was equally apparent in his tonal-dramatic plan for the ‘final’ Adagio. In the opening phrase, we heard a Wagnerian attempt – Haitink is today second to none in Wagner too – to console, to resolve, to redeem, culminating in the Dresden Amen so familiar from Parsifal. It was less of a lament than one often hears, which intrigued me; all would be revealed, though not quite yet. There was no attempt to tone down the subsequent harmonies, poised once again so very close to the threshold of atonality, albeit always within a firmly established tonal context. When the opening material returned, it now had for more of the klagende Lied to it. Kundry might almost have been voicing it, as if to show that the premature attempt to resolve, like her attempt to convert Parsifal, had not worked, which of course it had not. The Concertgebouw’s Wagner tubas soon made their elegiac presence felt, as, harmonically, did a torment sublimated from Tristan und Isolde. Attempts properly to climax failed, as they were seemingly always fated to do, though we never gave up hope. Unlike Mehta’s ‘finished’ reading of this unfinished symphony, here we were left with the devastation of the unresolved. It was desperate but never Mahlerian, a true (non-)conclusion to a truly great performance. Haitink at eighty has never been greater.