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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 6 in F major, Op. 68, “Pastoral” (1807-1808)* [41:32]
Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1799-1802) [34:25]
London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 21-22 November 2005; *26-27 November 2005, The Barbican, London. DSD
LSO LIVE LSO 0582 [76:02]
 


In early September, as the Henry Wood Promenade Concert season drew to a close in London, I was lucky enough to see a television broadcast of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony conducted by Bernard Haitink. It was a superb performance and displayed so many of the qualities that have made me admire this fine conductor for many years. How a conductor can direct a thrilling performance of one of the most theatrical of symphonies without recourse to histrionics, as Haitink did on this occasion, is something of a miracle. Part of the answer, of course, lies in thorough preparation both of himself and them, by him, of the other musicians so that he can draw the very best out of them in performance. This is allied to an intense musicality and a determination to put across the music without coming between the listener and the music. These admirable virtues are to the fore also in these excellent Beethoven performances.
 
These recordings were captured live at concert performances in November 2005. The performance of the Second Symphony on 21 November was reviewed for Seen and Heard by Tristan Jakob-Hoff (see review). He also reviewed the performance of the ‘Pastoral’ that took place on 26 November (see review).
 
Tristan was not as impressed by the performance of the Second as I was – though we are at one in our admiration for Haitink’s traversal of ‘Eroica’, given in the same concert, which has recently been released on LSO0080 and which I bought when it was issued. I was also delighted to see that we have an identity of view about Haitink’s ‘Pastoral’
 
Haitink’s traversal of the ‘Pastoral’ is a very fine achievement, founded on tempi that strike me as well nigh ideal. He takes the first movement at a flowing, genial tempo. However, please don’t interpret that description as implying that the performance is easy going: there’s ample purpose in Haitink’s conducting. The LSO plays radiantly for him. I liked very much the nice, firm bass line, tellingly enriched at times by the horns, and the attention to dynamics is scrupulous – though never studied – throughout the symphony as a whole. By the time the end of the first movement arrived I felt I’d heard a wonderfully wise and civilised account of the piece.
 
The second movement, Scene by the Brook, is shaped beautifully. Once again the tempo is adroitly chosen; it’s easeful but you never feel the music is dawdling. The strings and the woodwinds afford Haitink some fine playing and there are some lovely woodwind solos to enjoy. The third movement is light and lithe – this is a joyful and delightfully well-sprung dance. I wrote the word “infectious” in my listening notes. The storm that follows is exciting, featuring some thrilling thwacks on the timpani.

The finale brings a wonderful summation of the performance. In Haitink’s experienced hands the music is serene, evincing an inner warmth and radiance. The phrasing is affectionate and completely natural. Yet again the pacing is flawless and the playing is glowing. Although Haitink shapes the music splendidly he achieves this while keeping it on the move. The very ending is wonderfully satisfying, just like the entire performance that has gone before it.
 
This ‘Pastoral’ isn’t “revolutionary” in the same way as those by Gardiner, Harnoncourt or Zinman – all versions that I find tremendously stimulating. It is, however, a version to live with, one to listen to when one just wants to relax and marvel at the freshness of Beethoven’s invention. It’s a performance to savour and this is a version that I know I shall want to return to often.
 
The Second Symphony also receives a fine and intelligent performance. Haitink presents the lengthy first movement introduction well, shaping the music purposefully and controlling the tension very well. The main allegro, when it arrives, is bright, vigorous and emphatic. Haitink sustains thrust and drive throughout but never overdoes things.
 
The relaxation of the slow movement is welcome after the energy of the preceding movement. The reading is distinguished by smooth orchestral phrasing. It’s a genial movement and I thought that Haitink and his players delivered this felicitous music with a collective smile. The playful, exuberant scherzo is tossed off with no little brio. The extrovert mood is carried over into the finale, which seems to me to be buoyant and joyful. Here Beethoven wrote a movement of tremendous energy and it sounds as if the performers are not only relishing that but having fun in the process.
 
The sound quality is good as are the notes by Lindsay Kemp. I listened to the disc as a conventional CD and found that reproduction was excellent, offering clear and well-balanced sound.
 
It really is an absurd bargain to be able to buy this CD for less than the price of a ticket for one of the concerts at which these performances were first given. However, while the concerts inevitably become just a memory, through the medium of CD listeners can relive the concert hall experience at will. This disc contains a very good account of the Second Symphony and a quite splendid version of the ‘Pastoral. With a great orchestra on top form and directed by a master conductor this is a self-recommending issue, one that make me impatient to hear the rest of the cycle (see review of Symphony 7 and Triple Concerto).
 
John Quinn

 

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