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S & H Concert Review

Debussy & Shostakovich, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, Barbican, 20th March 2004 (MB)



Bernard Haitink may well be 75 this year but as this concert showed he still has the ability to unleash a huge sound from an orchestra. The Concertgebouw has always had the widest dynamic range of any of the great European orchestras and that was caught to thrilling effect in a performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony that was remorseless in its tread and unremittingly dark in its mood. The very broadness of Haitink’s tempi may not be to everyone’s taste (including my own in this work) but there is no doubting the terror he was able to suggest at key climaxes (ear-shredding piccolos, for example, had real agony to their playing; the cries from the Gulags were for all to hear).

The symphony opened wonderfully with double basses and ‘cellos conjuring up a bleak landscape, albeit sheathed beneath some magisterially toned playing (how magnificently he got the strings to blend in unison). It was certainly an epic opening – arresting even – but as so often with Haitink in this "symphony of suffering" it seemed commanding rather than genuinely tragic or forbidding. The dynamic reach of this orchestra was scintillating in the ethereal melody that followed, and catastrophic in the first climax which shouldered playing on a terrifying scale. There was almost something Brucknerian about the way that Haitink built up these climaxes, yet almost nothing Brucknerian about the sheer clarity of sound produced by the orchestra; what might have been dense orchestration gave way to a cruel separation of textures.

If Haitink’s view of this work is not especially rugged (as the best performances often are), it is most certainly laced with a sense of the apocalyptic. An overtly brutal Allegretto, with blisteringly precise playing, contrasted with a manic Allegro where the strings were plundered of their usual warmth to give them a rabid, splenetic pulse. A lone trumpet pierced the flesh like a spear. It heralded the visceral collapse into the Largo which the orchestra projected with playing that was both torturous and tragic. The final movement hovered between fragmentation and equivocation, its closing pages bordering on the spiritual, breathtaking dynamics adding to an illusion of peacefulness that was by no means an inevitable conclusion of Haitink’s earlier working of the symphony’s more bitter moments. This was a Mahlerian close to Shostakovich’s most Mahlerian symphony.

And, as in the Debussy which preceded it, the playing of the Concertgebouw was magnificent. Reedy woodwind, sonorous strings and beautifully toned brass added a Western palate to Shostokovich’s uncertain, but dark, symphonic shadows; in La mer, there was something languorous about the playing that made this picture of the sea shimmer rather beautifully. But there was also something wild about Haitink’s view of the work – crescendos didn’t so much roll as swell (emphatically louder than Debussy marks it in the score) – and one could argue that whilst the strings often rippled the woodwind surged forward, precariously upsetting the balance. This worked better in the final movement where the low strings rumbled – rather too distantly – and the woodwind threw up ominous gusts of sound. But with such capricious playing, this was a performance which affected a wind-swept atmosphere memorably.

Haitink continues his 75th birthday celebrations at the Barbican with the Vienna Philharmonic in April (Mahler’s Ninth) and the London Symphony Orchestra in June (Mahler’s Sixth). In September, he is joined by the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler’s Third and in November with the Dresden Staatskapelle in Weber, Hindemith and Beethoven.

Marc Bridle







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