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
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
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
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."