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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No. 8 in C minor (ed. R. Haas) [85:25]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Symphony No. 38 in D major, K 504 ‘Prague’* [28:36]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Bernard Haitink
rec. Semperoper, Dresden, 3 December 2002; *Kulturpalast, Dresden, 2 September 2002. DDD
Experience Classicsonline


Bernard Haitink celebrated his eightieth birthday in March 2009. Since his tenure as Music Director at the Royal Opera House came to an end he has worked as an honoured guest conductor with several orchestras. It is typical of Haitink, however, that he prefers to work closely with a handful of orchestras, developing solid musical relationships with them, rather than jetting off all over the world. Such is his eminence that the orchestras with which he works are the crème de la crème, including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Boston Symphony. Presumably no longer wishing to take on the role of a full-time Music Director, he has nonetheless stepped into the breach for two leading orchestras in recent years. For the Chicago Symphony he is bridging the gap between Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, acting as Principal Conductor from 2006 until Muti arrives in 2010. He performed an even more necessary service for the Dresden Staatskapelle following the sudden death of Giuseppi Sinopoli and served as their Principal Conductor for three seasons between 2002 and 2004.

The performances included in this set come from two rather special occasions in the Dresden Staatskapelle’s recent history. In August 2002 torrential rainstorms caused flooding in wide areas of Europe; Dresden was among the places affected. The orchestra was away at the time, performing at the Salzburg Festival, concerts which marked the start of Haitink’s term of office with them. Before returning home they gave a concert in Munich to raise funds for the repair of the Semperoper, the orchestra’s home, which was one of the many inundated buildings in Dresden. On returning to Dresden they moved into a temporary home at the Kulturpalast and gave a concert as a present to their fellow citizens. The Mozart performance included in this set formed the first half of that programme. The other work played was Eine Alpensinfonie by Richard Strauss and, recalling Haitink’s fine studio recording of that piece with the Concertgebouw, I wonder if Profil might be able to issue the Dresden performance at some stage. The damage to the Semperoper was repaired relatively quickly and the orchestra was able to move back there by December, when the present performance of Bruckner’s Eighth was given.

Profil have already issued a CD of Bruckner’s Sixth played by these same forces. My colleague Patrick Waller welcomed it warmly when he reviewed it. I share his enthusiasm for that recording but I have an additional perspective on it for I was lucky enough to attend a live performance by Haitink and the orchestra in Symphony Hall, Birmingham which was given just a few days after the performance captured on the Profil disc. I mention this because from my seat behind the orchestra I was able to observe Haitink closely – it was fascinating to see a master conductor obtaining wonderful results without a hint of histrionics – and to see the evident rapport between him and the orchestra and the evident respect of the players for him. Though these present performances were given at the beginning of their formal association it’s clear that a significant rapport existed even then.  

I have three previous recordings of Bruckner’s Eighth by Haitink in my collection and it’s very legitimate to ask whether we need yet another recording by him. Readers of the survey of Bruckner symphonies by Patrick Waller and I – which we have recently updated – will know that both of us esteem Haitink very highly as a Brucknerian. Indeed, if I were compelled to pick one conductor as my ideal guide to Bruckner’s music I think I’d opt for Haitink. I’ve always esteemed very highly his performances, live and recorded, of the Eighth and both his 1995 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (see review) and his 2005 live Concertgebouw account (see review) are pretty much self-recommending. If I’m to be honest this Dresden performance doesn’t add anything to our knowledge of Haitink’s way with this symphony but I think there are still powerful arguments in its favour.

For one thing, the performance is genuinely ‘live’ in that it’s a single concert captured in a recording as transmitted by the radio station MDR – even the Concertgebouw live recording is a conflation of two separate performances. Secondly, the recorded sound is thrilling and reports the refulgent playing of the Dresden orchestra superbly. Thirdly, and following on from that, the orchestral playing is simply magnificent and as good as that on any of Haitink’s previous recordings. So if you haven’t got a Haitink recording on your shelves there are strong arguments in favour of choosing this one. Also, admirers of the conductor may well want to have this as a souvenir of his partnership with another of the world’s great orchestras.

I don’t propose to discuss the performance in detail since the interpretation differs hardly at all from the aforementioned Concertgebouw reading. Haitink is patient, as he always is in Bruckner, and takes the long view both of each individual movement and of the symphony as a whole. Episodes in each movement seem to follow each other seamlessly, which isn’t always the case in performances of Bruckner directed by less experienced hands. Above all the performance impresses me as a wonderfully natural, unforced and understanding reading, which is paced to perfection. At the heart of the reading lies a long-breathed, noble and eloquent traversal of the great Adagio. Everything about this account of what is possibly Bruckner’s finest single movement seems just right; one senses that the conductor and his magnificent orchestra are as one. There’s majesty and a sense of purpose in the reading, an observation which holds true for the whole symphony. At the end of the finale I wondered for a second if the applause had been edited out. Not so. After a decent pause, the ovation begins. That’s rather remarkable actually because this symphony ends in a blaze of glory and every live account I can remember hearing has been greeted by immediate applause. The gap of a couple of seconds just lets the last chord resonate and it’s the greatest compliment the audience could pay to the marvellous performance they’ve just heard.

The performance of the Mozart symphony is by no means put in the shade. Haitink has a natural feel for Mozart and his reading of this symphony is supple, stylish and beautifully shaped. Once again the playing is first rate. The pace at which Haitink takes the Andante is quite fleet but the phrasing of the orchestra is so sophisticated that the music never sounds clipped or rushed. The outer movements have a verve and energy that is very satisfying.

So, does the market need a fourth recording of Bernard Haitink in Bruckner’s Eighth? When the performance is as fine as this one offered by Profil the answer has to be a firm yes. And the Mozart coupling is just as desirable. As Haitink enters his ninth decade we can only wish him ad multos annos!

John Quinn  


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