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The Art of Bernard Haitink
Full details at end of review
DECCA 478 1429 [7 CDs]
Experience Classicsonline


I think we’re all familiar with the rule that states that people we don’t encounter for a long time will remain unchanged, never aging, no grey hairs, no stoop. Bernard Haitink at eighty seems unthinkable, yet here it is, the eightieth birthday tribute to one of the greatest of conductors. Over seven discs, the set comprises sixteen major works and one (very) minor one. Almost all of them first appeared on the Philips label, but its sad disappearance means that only the Decca logo features here. The earliest recording is the Dvorák, set down in Amsterdam in 1959, and the latest is the 1995 Boston Ravel.

Accepted notions of Haitink tend to dwell on his apparent personal modesty and unswerving dedication to the composer rather than to his own ego. In reality, every musical performance is a reflection of the performer as well as of the composer since, in seeking the essential truth of the work, what the performer finds is the truth as he or she sees it. Nonetheless, Bernard Haitink seems less interested than most conductors in personal glory, preferring, so it would seem, to see himself as the medium through which the work passes from the composer to the listener. This has sometimes tended to produce performances tending towards the bland, but the seriousness of the conductor’s intent, plus the immense technical skill with which it is put into practice, ensures that disappointing performances are relatively rare.

Compiling a collection such as this is always a compromise, and no one listener is likely to be totally satisfied with the choices made. That said, there are three performances here that do not, in my view, show the conductor in his best light. And then, alas, I am obliged to point out to potential purchasers two failings they should take into account before deciding whether or not to invest in this set. The first is that the channels are reversed on the whole of Disc 5. Those who always listen through headphones have no problem, of course, but for others hearing the first violins coming from the right in Haitink’s quite magnificent performance of La Mer will probably be a disturbing experience. Perhaps even more serious is the failure to provide pauses between the different movements of many of the larger works. This is particularly noticeable in the symphonies, with the slow movement of Mahler’s First, for example, following on far, far too quickly after the exciting close of the first. And although I’m not enthusiastic about Haitink’s performance of The Rite of Spring, it is in any event severely compromised by the almost instantaneous appearance of the first notes of Part 2 after the climactic close of Part 1.

There are signs that some thought has been given to coherence of programming in the order of the works on the seven discs, but in reality timing will have been the governing factor. I listened to the set in chronological order of recording, and it is in this order that the performances are now discussed.

Haitink was just thirty, then, when he recorded Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The work is glorious, of course, but I’d never heard this performance of it and I was taken by it from the very first notes. The orchestral playing is superb and Haitink seems totally at one with the idiom, with a particularly Bohemian-sounding furiante scherzo. One wonders, with a set like this one, if comparisons are of any value. Admirers of the conductor will buy the set anyway – assuming they don’t already have everything in it – but for those who don’t know the conductor the repertoire may be a deciding factor. There are some superb performances of Dvorák’s Seventh about. I’m particularly fond of Mackerras’s reading on EMI Eminence, for example. But all the time I was listening to this Haitink performance I found myself thinking that it would do perfectly well as the only reading in a collection. I was surprised, then, to read a distinctly lukewarm review published when the disc first appeared.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was one of the works imposed for study in the year I was an “A”-level music candidate. I decline to say how long ago that was, but Haitink’s was one of the LPs the school bought to help us get to know the piece. I don’t think I’ve heard the performance since then, but I now feel that it is one of the conductor’s less successful readings. I adored the work when I was eighteen, but my view of it has changed with the passing years too. I now find I am impatient with it, sensing all too obviously the dying, impoverished composer desperate to spin out the notes to a full-length work when the inspiration was no longer there. The first movement makes too much use of indifferent material subjected to sundry contrapuntal devices. The second is more successful, the couples a genuinely good idea and well executed, though perhaps a little overlong for the material. The slow movement, one of Bartók’s night pieces, now seems rambling and unmemorable, and the fourth movement a patchwork of uninspired and desperately unfunny material. Only the finale is up to scratch, where the ever-present scrubbing of the strings at least has a structural and dramatic purpose. To make a success of this it needs to be conducted at white heat, and for my money Reiner is the most successful at that. Haitink seems to hold the piece somewhat at arm’s length. The opening lacks mystery, and he fails to hide the paucity of invention throughout this first movement. A jumbo-sized harp makes a surprising appearance in a recording otherwise exemplary, especially for the period. Haitink finds some humour in the second movement, and this is the most successful of the five, in spite of the famous choral passage being too loud. The two following movements both lack conviction and it is in the opening of the finale where the comparison with Reiner – and with Fricsay (DG) and Solti (Decca) for that matter – seems most to the Dutchman’s disfavour.

The performance of Smetana’s lovely tone poem Vltava, on the other hand, is very successful. Haitink’s reading is both forthright and atmospheric, from the delightful opening where the river springs from the ground to the majestic close as the great river flows into the sea. He is very successful, too, at conjuring up the picturesque incidents which appear along the way, the wedding polka being particularly delightful.

In the early days of the Mahler revival the choice for record collectors was between Bernstein, Kubelik and Haitink. Crudely characterised as the most straight laced of the three, Haitink’s Mahler was too often – with a couple of honourable exceptions, that is – placed in third position of preference. This Mahler First Symphony demonstrates what were then his strengths as a Mahler conductor, characteristics which hold true today, though the wisdom of age has brought with it a greater capacity to convince. I have never heard this performance before, and do not know if the first movement exposition repeat was respected on the original issue. It certainly does not feature in this incarnation, and that is a serious disadvantage as the movement is unbalanced, the exciting rushing quavers which close the exposition – and later the movement – are now heard only twice instead of three times. The end is very exciting, however, though the opening doesn’t really convey the mysterious awakening of nature which the music is meant to embody. The scherzo is loud and rustic but not very playful, though Haitink refreshingly avoids exaggerated glissandi and accelerandi rather pasted on by other conductors. The slow movement is marvellously done, revealing the bare bones of the scoring and making it sound as much like Berg as like Mahler, but the finale seems tame in comparison with other readings, and some listeners will prefer a wilder and more overtly passionate reading than this.

Liszt’s symphonic poem Festklänge comes next. Composed in 1853, it is loud and tuneful in Liszt’s characteristic orchestral manner. I had never heard it before and the atmosphere of good humour it conveys – one might translate its title as “Festive Noises” – struck me as similar in nature to that pervading much of Wagner’s Mastersingers. Mastersingers it is not, however, but those who like that kind of thing will find Haitink’s performance a thrilling one, the conductor surprisingly liberated and unbuttoned, and the orchestra in superb form.

Tchaikovsky never wrote a more Liszt-like work than Francesca da Rimini. Haitink’s performance is a masterly one. He seems at one with the idiom from the gloomy opening onwards, and the drama of the work is superbly controlled. He convinced me more than any conductor yet has that this piece, not one of my favourites, is might well be worth the work required to get to know and understand.

There are many fine things in Haitink’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The control of orchestral balance is masterly, with no unnatural spotlighting, though many details emerge which listeners may never have heard before. The crescendo at the end of the Dances of the Young Girls is superbly exciting, and you won’t hear a more outlandish gong crescendo than that in this reading of the Dance of the Earth, the end of which brings the first part to a superbly exiting close. The second part begins, grotesquely, almost immediately, but things take a very different turn thereafter. The opening is curiously prosaic and lacking in mystery and atmosphere. This continues right up to the infamous series of eleven hammered chords which Haitink for some reason decides to take much more slowly than the preceding passage, and in any event significantly more slowly than the crotchet = 120 stipulated in the score. The following Glorification of the Chosen One lacks tension and the jazziness of the chords – surely deliberate, even if one struggles to understand why – in the Evocation of the Ancestors is wholly absent. Things improve in the following passage, but the final Sacrificial Dance is again ordinary, and in event would need to be phenomenal to rescue the performance.

Haitink’s reading of Wagner’s Tristan Prelude and Liebestod is characterised by a quite remarkable erotic charge. He positively conspires with the composer to delay the climax in each piece until the final possible moment, the crescendi leading up to these points almost unbearable in their intensity, and the whole superbly realised by his magnificent orchestra.

One of the many miracles of Schubert’s Unfinished is that it can sound completely different according to who is conducting. Some find as much serenity in the first movement as in the second. Others – I’m thinking of Günter Wand in particular – present the work in the darkest hues: there is no limit to the depths of despair explored in his live recording from Berlin in 1995 (RCA Victor Red Seal). Haitink typically keeps the music moving in both movements, and nicely brings out the difference in mood of the two themes of the first movement. It’s a middle of the road performance, beautifully played, but not one to challenge accepted views of the work.

Haitink’s performance of Debussy’s La Mer is now accepted as one of the classics of the gramophone, and rightly so. He consistently finds just the right tempo, and his control of dynamics, texture and balance is truly remarkable. Control, indeed, is perhaps the key word in this performance, and some listeners have found that that very control leads to a certain coolness and lack of abandon. I do not share this view. Haitink and his superb orchestra – what extraordinary brass, in particular! – deliver perhaps the most exciting reading of the final pages I have ever heard. I only wish he had not chosen to include the optional horn fanfares in the eight bars before this final coda. Debussy had doubts about this passage, but I have always thought his original thoughts were best. This aside, this is truly a marvellous performance. What a pity then, that the stereo channels are reversed in this transfer.

The sobriety and control which have come to be Haitink’s most frequently evoked characteristics – and which are sometimes used as criticisms – were much in evidence in his Shostakovich symphony cycle from the seventies. Just as many felt he lacked Bernstein’s passion in Mahler, so others took the view that the wildness and abandon of, say, Mravinsky, escaped him in Shostakovich. The scherzo of the tenth symphony is a case in point: in Haitink’s hands there is huge momentum here, and violence too, but it never threatens to go out of control, and there is no overstatement. The long, brooding first movement is magnificently done, with a shattering build-up to an overpowering, long, central climax. Some might think that some passages in the third movement lack mystery, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Mahlerian links more overtly brought out. Then the finale seems an unequivocal success, the final pages as exciting as in any version in the catalogue. The orchestra plays superbly well, but the recording is showing its age somewhat, with some congested sound and even a little distortion in the more heavily scored passages. This is a superb reading overall, but you will have to listen to it with your remote control to hand in order to lengthen the pauses between the movements.

I’ve been resistant, up to now, to a fair bit of Richard Strauss’s orchestral music, with Tod und Verklärung a particular example. But that was before I encountered Bernard Haitink’s reading. I now feel his view of the dying artist to be the most convincing I have heard. I find much of Strauss’s autobiographical music too indulgent and subjective, though he transcends this in certain works, notably Metamorphosen. By scrupulous attention to detail, dynamics and balance, and by careful pacing which makes not only for a series of tempi perfectly wedded one to the other, but also that the final climax of the work be the strongest, Haitink here succeeds in making this listener hear the work afresh. I cannot recommend this performance too highly, and so, once again, can only lament the technical error which has allowed the channels to be reversed.

Haitink’s view of Beethoven, at least in 1985, was traditional without being old-fashioned, which is to say that his Seventh Symphony is thoroughly enjoyable and convincing without being particularly individual. At a measured tempo, the slow introduction to the first movement is weighty, sober and serious, the Concertgebouw strings rich and sonorous, particularly in the bass. The main part of the movement dances just as it should, its remarkable mixture of light heartedness and drama perfectly realised, and the difficult dotted rhythms brilliantly sustained. The slow movement moves forward at a pace perhaps less slow than was the norm, Haitink looking toward period practice, perhaps, but at any rate respecting Beethoven’s indicated Allegretto. He keeps the music moving too in the dramatic trio of the third movement, and the finale is superbly propulsive, though it’s a pity he elects not to respect the exposition repeat. It’s difficult to know what more one could ask for, but trawling through the hundreds of alternative readings available, one would surely find versions one preferred. This one would suit me, however, even if it were the only one in my collection.

Haitink recorded Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in 1964 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but the reading included here is a later one, from Vienna. Interestingly, in both versions Haitink preferred Bruckner’s second version of the work, from 1877, over that from 1889 which was, at least at that time, the overwhelming preference of most of his colleagues. This is not the place to explore in detail the differences between the three versions, and even less to try and choose between them, but I have heard all three and find that Bruckner’s second thoughts, as recorded here, strike me as the best solution to performing a work which is structurally very difficult to hold together. One of Haitink’s strengths, of course, is his mastery of large-scale forms, and though even he cannot disguise the fact that the composer did not find the one, inevitable way to present the multitude of material which makes up this work, his is certainly a most convincing view. He controls climaxes with a sure hand, and the slow movement is beautifully shaped. In particular, I think, Haitink’s way with the folk-like elements is particularly convincing. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, naturally enough, play like gods.

Stravinsky’s little Scherzo ŕ la russe was originally composed as a breadwinner for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but its textures are surprisingly Petrushka-like in this later reworking for standard orchestra. The composer is his most unbuttoned mood here. It makes a strange, if entertaining curtain-raiser to The Rite of Spring in this exuberant performance from Berlin.

The music of Brahms has formed a central part of Haitink’s repertoire and hearing this Brahms Third from Boston has been a particular pleasure. The performance opens with a tremendous sweep and scrupulous attention to the crescendo markings in the opening bars ensures drama and passion. Haitink observes the first movement repeat, as is almost universally the case nowadays, but the opening music returns with a bit of a jolt due to a rather uncomfortable difference in tempo. I don’t presume to suggest that this is anything other than what the conductor wanted, but the effect is rather strange. The slow movement flows well, and the beautiful, almost Mahlerian final climax is kept within the bounds of decency. The third movement communicates restrained sadness rather than passion, which is fine by me. The return of the main theme played by the solo horn is very touching. The finale is superb, with just the right balance, for this listener, between romantic passion and that very characteristic, Brahmsian, classical self-discipline. This is a most satisfying performance, then, of this rather elusive symphony.

The other Boston performance in this collection is also the most recent of all, that of Ravel’s ballet Mother Goose, recorded in November 1995. I’m surprised at Haitink’s apparent preference for the ballet rather than the original suite of five pieces. Ravel’s oeuvre is made up almost exclusively of perfectly finished jewels, and I think the music he composed to extend his suite into a ballet is among his least inspired. It is, in most performances, quite atmospheric, however, but not here, where Haitink and the Boston players quite fail to bring the different scenes to life. The solo wind playing, though technically brilliant, lacks character, or rather, lacks conviction. There seems little attempt to enter into the magical world that Ravel thought was childhood. How dull the conversation between Beauty and the Beast must have been, and even as they dance together there seems to be little spark between them. Then there are the calls of all those naughty little birds that ate up Tom Thumb’s crumbs: they seem dutiful here, and one can only wonder why the same notes sound so much more evocative when the players are from the London Symphony Orchestra and the conductor is Monteux, or, more to the point, in Haitink’s own, earlier recording with the Concertgebouw. Laidonerette makes heavy weather of her bath. Where is the fragile artifice of this preposterously lovable chinoiserie? I don’t think the players were ready to succumb to the music during these sessions, and in any event, even if they had been, their performance would have been well and truly scuppered by a recording which seems to place a microphone under each player’s nose, ensuring that we hear the wind players breathing, not to mention sundry creaks, clicks and even pages turning.

William Hedley

CD 1 [75:02]
Antonin DVORAK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1885) [35:59]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Vltava (The Moldau) (1874-9) [13:06]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”, D759 (1822) [25:50]

CD 2 [78:39]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1812) [40:05]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 (1883) [38:33]

CD 3 [72:00]
Franz LISZT (1811-18886)
Festklänge (1853) [19:54]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony 1 in D major (1898) [52:06]

CD 4 [78:31]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod (1859) [16:39]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1877) [61:28]

CD 5 [78:49]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung (1889) [26:53]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1905) [23 :25]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma Mčre l’Oye (1912) [28 :11]

CD 6 [74 :46]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Scherzo ŕ la russe (1944) [3:47]
Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) [34 :18]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra (1945) [36:41]

CD 7 [79:09]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Francesca da Rimini (1876) [24:36]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 6 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953) [54:24]

Concertgebouw Orchestra
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, September 1959 (Dvorák); September 1960 (Bartók); September 1961 (Smetana); September 1962 (Mahler); May/June 1975 (Schubert); September 1972 (Tchaikovsky); December 1974 (Wagner); December 1976 (Debussy); December 1981 (Strauss); October 1985 (Beethoven)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, November 1917 (Liszt); February 1973 (Stravinsky, Sacre); Kingsway Hall, London, January 1977 (Shostakovich)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, December 1988 (Bruckner)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin, October 1989 (Stravinsky, Scherzo)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, March 1993 (Brahms); November 1995 (Ravel)

 


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