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Haitink and the LSO (I): Richard Strauss concert, David Pyatt (horn), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, Barbican, 12th December, 2004 (MB)

Embarking on a week of concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra Bernard Haitink chose an all-Strauss programme to launch the first. The risk paid off handsomely, the concert ending with a superlative Ein Heldenleben that showed off the London Symphony Orchestra at its most resplendent, in a performance that gripped through its sheer beauty of sound.

Haitink’s Strauss – while highly lauded in some quarters – is certainly not to everyone’s taste. Don Juan, for example, which opened the concert, can seem a tad flat under Haitink: I wasn’t quite convinced the opening surge of emotion would survive Haitink’s rather deliberate pacing of it, and in all honesty it took sometime for the orchestra to get into its stride. But when it did, what a sound! Haitink gloried in this orchestra’s warmth of string tone (that wonderful bass line tolling magnificently) but the key to this performance came with the woodwind and brass playing and how Haitink moulded it. Back on form, the LSO horns were majestic (‘…they blew without fear of death’) but even they were overshadowed by a quite stunning oboe solo that consoled and enraptured. Excitement may have been given short shrift in this performance, but for sheer ravishment it took some beating.

Strauss’ Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat is so classically defined it is hard to believe this is the work of the same composer who could write such contrapuntally complex works like Ein Heldenleben. Haitink mastered its subtleties and intimacy well, as did the soloist, the ever-excellent David Pyatt. There was a corresponding sense of breathlessness about this performance which made its three interwoven movements seem contiguous: but with Pyatt effortlessly able to negotiate the works sometimes difficult conflicts of melancholy and buoyancy, the performance took on a life of its own that succeeded on its own terms. Haitink – perhaps influenced by his soloist – brought an ardour of youth to this performance, even if he did not banish completely an older man’s sense of orchestral radiance, even mourning, a sometimes misplaced mood in this concerto.

Haitink and the LSO gave a magnificent account of Ein Heldenleben, virtuosically stunning and musically enlightening. Again, Haitink focussed on the sheer beauty of the orchestra’s colours – giving a transcendent sense of glow to the love music (with some judicious rubato), wit and bite in the chattering woodwind and lumpen tubas (oh, how we critics loved that!) and unbridled heroism (albeit vainglorious heroism) in the narrator’s own battle, with militaristic timpani, visceral off-stage trumpets, and snarling brass. Haitink eschewed a sense of modesty in this work, as all great performances somehow seem to achieve, and this was recapitulated in the orchestra: outstanding solos from the leader Gordan Nikolitch (as the ever-present Pauline) added a copious amount of bile to reside with the tenderness of the lovers’ music, alongside oboe, cor anglais and horn solos (wonderfully articulated) that seemed like beautifully crafted miniatures beside the rasping, swirling turbulence of the bigger picture.

Bernard Haitink returns to the LSO on Wednesday to conduct Mozart and Bruckner and next Sunday to complete this short series with Haydn and Mahler.

Marc Bridle



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