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 Mozart and Brahms: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, London 23.9.2009 (GD)

Symphony No.41 in C, K 551 'Jupiter'

: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op.68

As far as I know, Bernard Haitink has not conducted a great amount of Mozart's symphonic output. He certainly has not recorded much Mozart, apart from some quite competent performances of the major operas. Tonight's performance of Mozart's last symphony, although predictably very accurately played, did nothing to make me want to hear more of ‘Haitink’s Mozart’ because mostly it was  a rather dull and four-square affair. The opening 'Allegro vivace', as a locus classicus of dramatic and brilliant contrast and elegance of form, just plodded away in a distinctly perfunctory manner. For reasons only known to him,  Haitink toned down the all important bravura parts for trumpets and drums, thus robbing the music of its ceremonial grandeur and its 'vivacious' elegance. There was some beautifully articulated sotto voce string playing in the wonderfully veiled F major andante cantabile with its subtle Fminor/G minor modulations, but often Haitink's phrasing was rather routine. This reading certainly did not displace renditions heard from older conductors in the traditional style such as Bruno Walter and Jochum. The Menuetto lacked buoyancy and the required rhythmic inflections and lilt: - and the great Molto Allegro finale, as a paradigm of classical counterpoint, with its five-part concluding flourish of Olympian brilliance, went for virtually nothing. Everything was played as written, but I had no feeling of wonder and exhilaration. It all sounded like a run-through and things were not helped by Haitink's decision to deploy non-antiphonal violins; surely a sine qua non in this of all movements.

The Brahms symphony is  a key work in the Chicago orchestra’s repertoire; one of their show pieces. Throughout the playing was superb and I have seldom heard such orchestral lucidity in this work. The string section played like a great string quartet, with perfect distinction between (say) the violas and celli. And how often does one hear the whole woodwind section including bassoons, contra-bassoons and clarinets so clearly and eloquently? The depth of the string playing has  a certain Germanic tone and indeed this Germanic quality is also part of the orchestra's tradition, going back to the great days of Stock and Reiner. But there is a distinctly American quality too; perfect tuning and pitch, total rhythmic and dynamic accuracy and a certain brightness (brilliance) in the brass, with fabulous horns.  Even the veterean timpanist Donald Koss demonstrated his meticulous art by using no less than eight separate sticks for each harmonic/tonal nuance; and as in the great timpani legacies from Boston, and Toscanini's New York Philharmonic and NBC orchestras, Koss stood to play. 

Having  said all this there was something disappointing about Haitink's conducting. Not that it was badly directed - it was in many ways very well done; nicely structured with care taken over important transitions.  But where was the rhythmic zest, the sense of wonderful diversity in each movement or the overwhelming, and suspenseful expectation as the jubilant, triumphant coda approached? These are all qualities that contribute to making this marvellous old war-horse, new and exciting, and heard so resonantly from conductors like Toscanini, Wand (also recorded in Chicago)  and indeed Haitink's underrated mentor at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Eduard van Beinum. 

There was something too safe, too polite about Haitink’s rendition.  Those C minor string cross-rhythms in the first movement’s Allegro failed to register any sense of drama or expectation, and when it came, the climax was toned-down dynamically. The Adagio sostenuto was insufficiently sustained, and the Allegretto grazioso lacked any sense of grace or charm. The transition from the C minor Adagio introduction to the finale, and the wonderful transition to C major in the great horn melody were all well handled but why did Haitink tone down the dramatic ff timpani roll preceding the horn call? Then again, why did he hold on to it, making it sound tame, when no hold is indicated? 

Similarly, the great coda, with its triumphant peroration of themes and the glorious chorale -  'the most solemn note in the whole symphony' for Tovey -  lacked the degree of exhilaration, drama, or joy, which make for a great performance. It all sounded 'there' but curiously understated; once again with Haitink toning down the dynamics, and a quite alien sense of tameness in the rhythmic articulation -  in this of  all codas.  So a mixed bag then; wonderfully brilliant playing compromised by unquestionably competent conducting which, however, failed to convince.

Geoff Diggines

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