In the 1960s and 1970s Bernard Haitink made a complete
cycle of the Bruckner symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Subsequently
he recorded several of the symphonies again with another orchestra with
a great Bruckner tradition, the Vienna Philharmonic. It is from that
second series of recordings that this pair of reissues stems.
Both these performances seem to me to demonstrate performance
and interpretation of Bruckner at the very highest level. I have always
been a great admirer of Haitink in Bruckner (and in so much else), feeling
that his respect for the score and his feeling for line and for structure
put him in the front rank of interpreters of this composer. These recordings
strongly confirm me in that view.
Listeners should be warned that the performance of
the Fourth has an extremely wide dynamic range. This means that the
opening string tremolandi are very quiet indeed. However, this
adds to the sense of heightened anticipation and I must say at the outset
that both symphonies benefit from very good recorded sound. The Phillips
engineers have produced a sound of great richness, depth and detail,
using to the full the atmospheric acoustics of the Musikverein.
Haitink has the priceless ability to think in long
musical paragraphs and to lay these out cogently for the listener. He
also evinces a masterly control of dynamics and an unerring sense of
pulse and pace. At no time in this reading of the Fourth (nor in the
Fifth, for that matter) did I feel that his speeds were anything other
than completely natural and every change of tempo is handled smoothly.
He is faithful to every detail in the score and this approach is anything
but pedantic; rather it allows us to appreciate Bruckner’s symphonic
logic to the full.
I’m sure Haitink would be the first to say that the
excellence of this account of the Fourth owes much to the peerless playing
of the VPO. The strings are beautifully rich, the woodwind mellow and
the brass golden toned. The grandeur of their playing and of Haitink’s
conception is consistently apparent but can be sampled, for example,
in the passage beginning at 10’ 56" in the first movement (disc
1, track 1). A little later in the same movement, the rapt duet between
flute and horn (13’21") shows the depth of feeling behind this
The slow movement is, for the most part, more relaxed
than its predecessor and is beautifully judged by Haitink, with yet
more gorgeous playing from the VPO (such as the short passage at 7’46"
where there is a lovely nut-brown richness to the cello tone.) In this
movement in particular the string section shows great refinement. There
is power too when Bruckner calls for it and the great climax rings out
The hunting horns in the scherzo really call to mind
the thrill of the chase. This main material is most exciting yet the
meno mosso sections are paced to perfection. The trio (where
the hunters take a breather?) is phrased with great delicacy and affection.
The beginning of the finale (track 4 to 3’12")
is mightily impressive, with a palpable sense of suspense at the very
start. Thereafter the argument is presented cogently and skilfully.
As has been the case throughout, the sonority of the VPO brass is glorious
(try the passage from 11’27"); they play with tremendous power
but never sound to be at full stretch and you sense they always have
something in reserve. Eventually, at 18’47" Haitink conjures a
supremely mysterious start to the coda which gradually unfolds with
utter magnificence, crowning a superb achievement by Haitink and his
This performance held my attention from start to finish.
It is magnificent and one of the very finest I have ever heard. It can
only be ranked with the very greatest recorded Fourths such as Karl
Böhm’s 1973 recording (also with the VPO) and the 1998 performance
by Günter Wand with the Berlin Philharmonic.
The Fourth is, perhaps, Bruckner’s most approachable
symphony. I have always found the Fifth a harder nut to crack. If a
performance is to succeed it is absolutely essential that the conductor
has a firm sense of structure, especially in the colossal finale with
its twin fugues. Perhaps it is in his ability to hold together such
complex movements and thereby to make sense of them for the listener
that Haitink’s credentials as a great Brucknerian are most impressively
Here the fire and drama of the first movement’s main
allegro are conveyed to the full. I like also the sense of repose in
such passages as the rising solo wind phrases (disc 2, track 1, 6’20")
but even in such episodes Haitink never lets the tension sag and, of
course, he handles the huge climaxes superbly, ensuring they make their
full effect without ever being overdone.
The adagio unfolds easily and naturally. Among many
incidental beauties along the way, the richness and sheen of the VPO
string sound at letter B in the score (track 2 between 2’13" and
4’14") is something at which to marvel. When the movement’s final
peroration is reached at figure H (track 2, 12’42") it arrives
with a sense of complete inevitability. The VPO reserve some of their
most eloquent playing for the last few minutes of this movement.
The scherzo is very good but if I pass over it quickly
it’s because the finale is the biggest test of all. Suffice it to say
that, aided and abetted by some sumptuous playing by the VPO, Haitink
passes this test with flying colours. The massive tuttis (such as the
one at track 4, 5’57") are delivered with monumental power but,
crucially, there's a wealth of refined playing to savour in the many
quieter passages. This is, in fact, a very subtle account of this huge
movement. A notable example of this refinement occurs at figure H where
the great chorale appears for the first time (track 4, 7’22").
The chorale itself is delivered with burnished pomp by the brass but
then it is answered by string phrases which are so exalted that we might
be listening to Parsifal.
In the two fugues every strand is crystal clear so,
of course, these sections make complete sense. All in all, this is a
thrilling and compelling account of what can seem a complex and forbidding
movement and in Haitink’s sure hands it lasts not a minute too long.
As the end comes in sight the tutti at letter Z (22’23") is impressive
enough but the final apotheosis of the chorale (23’12") is overwhelming.
It’s as if all the Gods were entering Valhalla in procession. From there
on to the end all is majesty.
I’ve not mentioned any comparisons. This is deliberate.
Quite simply, I think this is the finest recording of the Fifth I have
ever heard (eclipsing, for example, Haitink’s earlier account with the
Concertgebouw, fine though that was). This reading seems to me to be
in a class of its own and it represents a prodigious achievement.
The reissue of this peerless Fifth is a cause for rejoicing.
When it comes coupled with a superb Fourth and at a most advantageous
price its claims on the collector’s attentions are surely irresistible.
Excellent sound for both recordings and good succinct notes simply enhance
the package still further. It is a privilege to review such a distinguished
issue and I recommend it with the utmost enthusiasm.