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S & H Concert Review

Bruckner, Symphony No.5 in B flat, Wiener Philharmoniker, Bernard Haitink, RFH 5th May 2003 (MB)


It is some years since the Wiener Philharmoniker has played in London repertoire for which it is unrivalled – and, indeed, this performance of Bruckner’s Fifth provided ample opportunity to hear a peerlessly played and peerlessly conducted performance of the work. That this concert took place at all in the circumstances, the orchestra’s larger instruments having been delayed by a traffic accident en route to the Festival Hall, added a sense of tension to the evening. In the event, the concert started 40 minutes later than scheduled and, presumably without any rehearsal time available, orchestra and conductor threw caution to the wind and gave us an utterly memorable account of the symphony spellbinding for both its beauty and tautness. Haitink, unusually, conducted without a score – it was certainly on his stand but remained resolutely closed throughout the 75 minutes of the performance.

Bernard Haitink has always taken a somewhat swift view of this symphony and this performance was no exception. Weingartner wrote of Bruckner’s symphonies as being comprised of "mighty columns, magnificent capitals and massive entablature" yet despite Haitink’s driven tempi this was exactly the impression he gave of the work. Details of beauty were unquestionably observed as was a compelling dynamic range, only ever really heard with this orchestra, but also evident was a towering architectural range, especially in the vast Finale which was delivered with monumental power.

That pin-point dynamic range, which only the Wiener Philharmoniker seems able to project in the dry acoustic of the Festival Hall, began with the equivocal counterpoint of the opening movement, the bass figure semi-mysterious beneath the softer string line rising above it. The blaze of woodwind (so distinctively voiced even during the tuttis) and golden-toned brass which precede the transition to the allegro were never over-balanced with Haitink restraining horns, trombones and trumpets sufficiently to allow the woodwind to be heard. Tremolo strings were bowed with an unmatched fervour and unanimity of phrasing and the inner conflict between B flat and D, which gives the movement an unsettling change of mood, resided beside playing of transcendental starkness.

That mood of starkness also opened the Adagio with supremely bleak oboe playing hovering above pizzicato strings, and Haitink’s beat of the 6/4 metre establishing the root tension which underlies the searing melody of the main theme which twice enters but is twice overcome. The first entry of that glorious melody was not only stunning for the breadth which Haitink established, it was also stunning for the incandescent tone the Vienna strings breathed into the performance with violins, violas and ‘cellos offering sumptuous playing. When the theme is recalled towards the end of the movement basses and ‘cellos rode effortlessly beneath the soaring violin line. If tempi were liquid they never sounded rushed.

If the Scherzo retained an element of classical balance - between the Ländler-like opening section and the contrast of the Trio – then the Finale was rigorously precise in the manner of economy. Some conductors can seem overawed by Bruckner’s orchestration overemphasising the organ-like qualities of the fugue and chorale conclusion so detail becomes obscured. Not so Haitink, who retained the arc of expansivity and tension by allowing the instrumentation to reveal itself with almost vocal clarity. The fugue, not rushed fiercely as some have done, was made electric by the skill with which Haitink persuaded the Wiener Phiharmoniker to realise the passion of the music, bringing it closer to Beethoven in doing so with its hymnal quality utterly realised. The chorale itself was delivered with exhilarating control and breathtaking phrasing, tremolo strings sounding almost agitated against the refulgent splendour of the Viennese brass.

This superb performance – so faultless in so many ways – showcased a great orchestra and great conductor working symbiotically to realise the vision of one of the greatest of all composers. That in itself is rare enough, but coupled with the supreme quality of this concert it makes the prospect of hearing Haitink with the orchestra again in London (next year as part of his 75th birthday celebrations) a mouth-watering one.

Marc Bridle

Bernard Haitink will conduct at the Barbican next year, between April and November, concerts with the Royal Concertgebouw, Berliner Philharmoniker, Wiener Philharmoniker, Dresden Staatskapelle and London Symphony Orchestra as part of his 75th birthday concert series. Details at




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