PROM 58 Wagner: Prelude and
Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde and Bruckner Symphony No 7 in E major,
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, RAH 28 August 2000
During the interval of this Prom I overheard someone describe the Berlin Philharmonic's performance of the Prelude and Liebestod as effortless. In many ways this is a perfectly judged point of view. However one looks at their playing, whether it be from the almost inaudible pianissimo on cellos and double basses at the close of the Prelude, or the opening theme on bass clarinet, clarinet and horns of the Liebestod, the dynamic range was achieved with the utmost precision and clarity.
Effortless it may have been, but I have also rarely heard such a luminous account of this glorious music. The cellos' crescendo leading from f to p in bar 9 was perfectly judged, their ascent from the centre of the orchestra over pizzicato violas and basses in bars 18 to 22 just heavenly. The richness of sound, both here and elsewhere from the strings, was as velutinous as finespun silk. Woodwind and strings blended like smelted gold and the horns produced a tone as clear as cut glass.
With such glorious playing as this it is easy to find the music becomes demystified.
Haitink, swifter than I had expected, produced a performance that seethed with passion. At the great climax the strings and brass swelled to heights of ecstasy you only normally hear in the very greatest performances (Karajan 1952, Bohm 1973, and Celibidache 1983). The magma of passion was overwhelming as it set the seal on an unforgettable performance.
The Bruckner achieved moments of sublimity that were breathtaking. If the first movement perhaps lacked mystery (apart from a shattering coda that built up its power inexorably), from the adagio onwards the performance gripped like a vice. This was no more so than in the scherzo which was simply magnificent. Haitink and the Berliners achieved the most fabulously articulated ostinato for the opening that I have heard for a very long time. Cellos and basses throbbed, and violins and violas on lower strings breathed a fuming, barely concealed anger. The Trio opened with the most delicately touched timpani strokes, the lyricism overtly contrasted to the brutal intensity of the scherzo.
The Finale brought with it some of the most superlative brass playing of the evening. Trombones were particularly impressive with playing that pierced the flesh. Such forte playing, however, can have its drawbacks (woodwind were all but obliterated), but it had an elemental power to it that was in keeping with Haitink's view of this symphony. This was Bruckner with all the sonorities left intact.
I suspect Claudio Abbado (who was due to conduct this concert) would have approached both works differently. As it was, Bernard Haitink and the Berlin Philharmonic produced an unforgettable concert that I cannot imagine being equalled at this year's Proms.
This concert is being broadcast again on BBC Radio 3 on 4 September at 2.00pm.
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