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
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.
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 www.barbican.org.uk