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Haitink’s Beethoven II: London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, Barbican, 21.11.2005 (TJH)



Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in Eb




What better way could there be to demonstrate the revolutionary nature of Beethoven’s Third Symphony than by preceding it with his Second?  The two symphonies seem so far apart in terms of style and ambition that it is hard to believe they were written just one year apart: where the Second is playful and rather inconsequential, the Third is a frontal assault on the entire Classical symphonic tradition, stretching it and remoulding it into something quite new, something that had greater impact on symphonic thought than any other piece in the repertoire.

Bernard Haitink placed these two works side by side in the second concert of his Beethoven cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra on Monday, and the contrast was indeed palpable.  Unfortunately, so was the contrast in enthusiasm.  The Second is a long but fairly conventional work, a poor relation that would be performed far less often if not for its illustrious extended family – or at least, that was the impression one got from Haitink’s performance.  He seemed to find little joy in its rather cheeky first movement, and even less in its extremely cheeky Scherzo: what should have amounted to a series of musical pratfalls was at best po-faced and at worst plodding.  The slow movement fared a little better, with Haitink showing off the subtlety of Beethoven’s long-disdained wind writing, and he found a bit more joie de vivre in the stop-start finale.  But by Haitink’s standards, this seemed little more than a tick in a checkbox, a necessity performed for completion’s sake.

If it was a rather pedestrian reading of a rather pedestrian work, the Eroica that followed sounded as radical in performance as it had been in the course of musical history.  When he is on form, Haitink has the ability to rejuvenate a tired old classic like no other stick-waver in the business, and that is just what he did here.  With an unexpectedly full LSO on stage, he brought out details in Beethoven’s all-too-familiar score one scarcely knew existed, bringing especial clarity to the subsidiary string parts with the help of a little desk shuffling.  But his eye remained firmly on the big picture at all times, and anyone who has ever harboured the guilty thought that the Third is just a teensy bit lopsided would have been greatly heartened by Haitink’s remedial performance.  By pushing the centres of gravity in both the opening Allegro con brio and the famous Marche funèbre back quite a bit further than in most performances, he gave each of them an almost parabolic quality of growing and subsiding intensity.  The latter was a particularly fine example of his innate sense of pacing, for – although it was pretty fleet-footed for a funeral march – its sense of defeated heroism was perfectly encapsulated by the twin emotional peaks of Haitink’s structure: a joyous outburst in C major followed by an anguished outpouring of fugue in C minor.  But the last two movements quickly dispelled this Sturm und Dräng, exploding triumphantly with an infectious energy that ensured this Third had never a dull moment.  Just a shame about that dull Second.



Tristan Jakob-Hoff






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