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S & H Concert Review

Haitink’s Brahms Series, Gordan Nikolitch (violin), Tim Hugh (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, Barbican Hall, 19th & 21st May, 2003, Barbican Centre (AR)



Bernard Haitink’s Barbican Brahms Cycle is to be released on the budget priced ‘LSO Live’ label and judging by the two evenings’ powerful playing it should easily surpass Haitink’s curiously passionless Boston Symphony Brahms cycle recorded by Philips some years back.

The opening Tragic Overture was broad, concentrated and measured, and he made the LSO sound tough and granite-like getting a very dark textured string tone, raucous brass and pointed woodwind. The horns in particular had great presence.

Brahms’ Double Concerto was conducted and played with great passion and intensity but was somewhat let down by the two soloists: the violinist Gordan Nikolitch and cellist Tim Hugh. Whilst the timing in their exchanges was impeccable, and they were note perfect, they seemed to lack that extra interpretative dimension which transforms a workmanlike performance into a memorable one. In the first movement (Allegro) Nikolitch produced highly assertive playing which tended to grate in moments of high tension, sounding scraped more than bowed; by contrast, Hugh played with a more subtle and subdued approach, almost as if shadowing his violinist counterpart.

What made this movement sound so refreshing and powerful was the combination of Haitink’s incisive conducting and the LSO’s deeply impassioned playing. With the Andante, Haitink conjured some wonderfully sombre playing from the woodwind. Haitink’s reading of the closing Vivace non troppo had the LSO surpassing themselves in the sheer dynamism of their playing, notably from the timpanist who played with great precision through-out, while both soloists played with a more gritty and nervous attack making the music sound wonderfully raw and direct and complementing their conductor’s fiery interpretation.

Haitink’s reading of Brahms’ Second Symphony was less coherent and more problematic: the first movement often sounded too heavy and strident, skimping the lighter textures of the lyrical moments, which were too rushed. The Adagio non troppo was played with great passion with the LSO strings really excelling themselves, but Haitink’s conducting curiously lacked passion and poignancy, making the music sound too forced at times.

By far the most successful movement was the closing Allegro con spirito which really took fire, being perfectly paced and building to an awe-inspiring conclusion, with sensational brass and timpani bringing the work to a magnificent finish.

The second concert in Haitink’s Brahms series began with a rather reserved and laid back reading of the composer’s Second Serenade.

The Allegro moderato was rhythmically slack, with the woodwind sounding congested and unfocused, while the Scherzo: vivace needed far more attack. Haitink was in his element in the brooding Adagio non troppo where he coaxed forth some very expressive and weighty string playing from the violas and cellos (no violins in this work), pacing this solemn movement to perfection. However, this solemnity seemed to spill over into the next movement, the Quasi menuetto, and Haitink came rather unstuck, the result being that the movement sounded somewhat static, as if conducted in slow motion.

The Rondo: Allegro was conducted with the requisite brio and had some very fine pointed playing from Sharon Williams’s piccolo and flautists Paul Edmund-Davies and Gareth Davies. What was disappointing were the submerged horns, since Brahms specifically wrote the central theme of this movement for the horns to show off.

If the Brahms Second Serenade lacked rhythmic thrust and passion then the interpretation of the Brahms First Symphony certainly made up for it. Here Haitink seemed to spring to life, conducting this score with great emotion and authority. He conducted the Un poco sostenuto with a rock-like steady flow, keeping a tight reign on structure and dynamic range. The strings had incredible force and swagger playing with great warmth and depth of tone. The Andante sostenuto was perfectly paced with some wonderfully warm and mellow woodwind playing while the Un poco allegretto had the right degree of light jauntiness.

The starkly played pizzicato strings of the opening Adagio of the last movement had a menacing presence, and the developing Allegro non troppo ma con brio was very dramatic and intense, with Haitink maintaining a firm structural grasp on the movement, treating it as one long, sustained sweep. A striking feature of this movement was the impeccably subtle playing of the timpanist: every note and key change could be heard.

At the end of this exhilarating performance Haitink was presented with the Association of British Orchestras Award (ABO) for 2003 by Sir Simon Rattle, who said "We all know Bernard’s performances have a particular glow to them… From our hearts, bless you!"

In accepting the award, Haitink said "I’m not known as a talker."

However, he drew a round of applause from the audience when praising and sympathising with British musicians for working in a country where "culture is not a political priority."

Alex Russell



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