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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 53,  Bruckner Symphony No. 8 in C minor : (1890 Nowak edition) Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor) 24 .8. 2007 (AVE)


This was the first time I had heard Haitink conduct the Leopold Novak edition of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in C minor and it certainly sounded musically more convincing and satisfying than the Robert Haas Edition. Throughout the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra played beautifully - rather too beautifully -   smoothing out the rugged and raw orchestral textures that constitute the ‘Bruckner sound’.


Whilst Haitink articulated a sense of distinct architectural structure and line, letting the music ‘be itself’ devoid of interpretative mannerisms, yet there was little sense of unfolding drama and nervous tension, and in the climax the trumpets, horns and timpani lacked emotional charge and intensity despite being very well played. The brass and timpani should sound absolutely terrifying, but here Haitink’s polite and pristine conducting toned them all down and he seemed much more concerned with the beauty of sound for sound’s sake rather than with the unleashing of power and drama.


Haitink’s well-mannered and phlegmatic temperament seems to me to be too tame for Bruckner – as well as for Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler - composers whom Haitink tends to tone down. I remember years ago a record shop assistant in St. Paul’s always saying to his customers: “You’re safer with Haitink” – yet music is not about being ‘safe’ – and certainly not in Bruckner – the most unsafe of composers!


The Scherzo came off slightly better, with much more bite and thrust; again very well played as expected and well paced but still too tame and lacking in dynamic and emotional contrasts; the rich melodious strings were wonderful in lyrical passages and were well juxtaposed with the punctuating brass; there was much more intensity here than in the rather sedate first movement.


In the Adagio – arguably the greatest slow movement ever written - Haitink secured a strong sense of unfolding structure and architectural line, allowing the music to flow all on its own as if on autopilot. Here the Concertgebouw Orchestra were in their element, with warmly expressive playing from the mellow Wagner tubas, woodwinds and strings; never over sentimentally sweet but still most moving. The gradual build to the central climax was very well judged if rather too regimented and sedated, but the closing bars were so serene and caressing with mellow brass and soft strings; if only our British orchestras could play so sensitively! The audience was absolutely attentive and transfixed: this was the Concertgebouw at its best.


The Finale can often sound like an anarchic circus displaying a disconnected ragbag of sensational sounds, but Haitink was able to hold the juxtaposing tempos and textures together and again he had a grip over the rather wayward structure of this manic movement, but failed to make the monstrous music ignite and erupt.


The closing coda was well held together but again simply lacked power and weight, and here the rather uncouth audience robbed the music of its concluding silences by applauding prematurely. Haitink had actually stated that he had hoped that this Prom audience would allow “a breathing space” for the music to die away in an aura of silence – as was the case with his recent Barbican Centre Mahler Third Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic where the more mature and musical audience were silent for thirty seconds, allowing Mahler’s silence to be heard and being felt.  


David Cairns wrote of the recent recording with Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra: “Bernard Haitink has given fine performances of Bruckner Eight before, but he has now absorbed the mighty work so deeply into his being that every tempo and phrase and accent seems right and predestined.”


Tonight the one thing Haitink appeared not to have done is absorbed Bruckner’s 8th Symphony into his being! His being – his nature – seems antithetical to that of Bruckner! I often wonder if many of our music critics have actually heard great Bruckner conductors such as Abendroth, Asahina, Jochum, Klemperer, Tintner, van Beinum, von Matacic, and Wand – because if they had they certainly would not be so enthusiastic about Haitink’s rather effete Bruckner. Yet conservative English music critics warm to Haitink’s Bruckner and Mahler because it is much more akin to ‘easy listening’ – civilized, domesticated, and pasteurised - with all the hard, dank, rough and gritty textures filtered out and rendered ‘safe’ for ‘easy’ consumption.


Alex Verney-Elliott


Further listening:


Bruckner symphony No. 8: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Eduard van Beinum (conductor): PHILIPS:  442 730-2:  June 1955.


Bruckner symphony No. 8: NHK Symphony Orchestra, Lovro von Matacic (conductor): DENON:  35CO-1001. March 7, 1984.


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