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Bernard Haitink: Portrait
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
rec. 1997-2016
BR KLASSIK 900174 [11 discs]

Bernard Haitink’s long career has been characterised by longstanding relationships with his musical collaborators. The most obvious example is his long period at the head of the Concertgebouw, but there are plenty of others too, such as the Royal Opera House or the Chicago Symphony. One of the most productive has been his long partnership with the Bavarian RSO, and they celebrate that with this bargain box of Haitink’s recordings on their own label. Nearly all have been previously released and have garnered glowing reviews, so the opportunity to collect them all together in one (bargain-priced) place is warmly to be welcomed.

The excuse, if it were needed, for issuing this box now is the occasion of Haitink’s ninetieth birthday. That alone gives cause for reflection, because Haitink’s weight of experience brings huge insights into the music he plays. It’s also a cause of surprise because, remarkably, the Beethoven and Haydn performances here are the first time he has recorded any of these works.

The set opens with a decidedly old-school Missa Solemnis. The tempi are broad and the scale is large, so it won’t please those who subscribe to the HIP lobby. However, this performance is about as good as you could possibly hear when you put it in the older tradition. It positively glows. The opening Kyrie is stately but full of meditative concentration, as is the gloriously moving Benedictus. The Gloria is big and assertive, but it’s never vulgar, something that could also be said of the Credo. The Agnus Dei begins in anguished darkness and grows into an explosively exciting account of the war music that’s caught with admirable clarity by the engineers. The quartet of soloists are very strong, especially the women, who float on high while engaging in the drama. There is lyrical beauty in Mark Padmore’s voice, while Hanno Müller-Brachmann sings the opening of the Agnus Dei like a granite monster. The chorus have the size of an army but the agility of an athlete, and the orchestral playing is first class throughout: it’s hard to believe that the intensity of the Benedictus and the martial rattle of the Agnus Dei can be part of the same work. This performance is very much in the tradition of Klemperer, Karajan and Levine but, for my money, it sees them all off, thanks primarily to Haitink’s focused dedication. He is unhurried but also energetic, full of spiritual focus and the deepest sort of contemplation. This may be Haitink’s first recording of Beethoven’s great mass, but we should all be delighted that we have it.

These are also – incredibly! – Haitink’s first recorded performances of the Haydn oratorios, and they’re sensational. The Seasons is a new released (the only one in the set) and it has an earthy immediacy that is in keeping with the naïveté of the texts and the diversity of the music. The soloists are great communicators, and the chorus sings with gutsy enthusiasm, to say nothing of the warm detail of the orchestral sound. The Creation is even finer, though. Everything in the orchestral picture is carefully considered and brilliantly recorded, so that the sound comes to vibrant life in every aspect. The creation of light veritably blazes, but the evocation of the living creatures is beautifully detailed, and there is a soft-focused hue to the scenes in Eden that takes the listener to an entirely different place. Padmore and Tilling are excellent. Müller-Brachmann is a touch too gravelly, but that’s the tiniest piece of grit in a truly excellent oyster.

Haitink’s Bruckner has long been renowned for its visionary scale and power – his Concertgebouw cycle sets the standard by which complete Bruckner sets are judged – and the two symphonies here show that he has lost none of his vision in later life. In fact, these performances bring out the best in both conductor and orchestra. For one thing, Haitink makes sense of No. 5 in a way that few other recordings do. “Lucid” is rarely a word that I apply to that symphony’s knotty finale, but Haitink unfolds its multi-layered structure in a way that is uniquely revealing and which, for once, makes perfect sense. The scherzo is, perhaps, a little cursory; but then that’s in its nature, isn’t it? The orchestra play for him like gods, those German strings sounding like newly cured leather – lyrical second themes are particularly effective – and the brass chorales are spine-tingling, the horn doing their best impression of a hunting pack in the scherzo of No. 6.

The Mahler recordings have been widely praised, and they’re every bit as valuable to have here. Haitink understands the vast sweep of No. 3 as well as any and better than most. Again, tempi are on the slow side, particularly for the second and third movements, but that leads to a slow-burning focus that culminates in a blazing coda to the finale. The sprawling first movement feels like a controlled bacchanal – anarchic restrain, if you will – culminating in the moment when the trombones play the march theme in the major key, and ending in a glorious upward spiral of delight. The playing is super, with braying brass and clangourous percussion, and the recorded sound is top notch: all of the diverse effects, on and off stage, are captured with highest grade clarity, and that also means that the posthorn solo in the Scherzo floats in with such delicacy that it veritably caresses the ear. Never was the “Summer Morning’s Dream” nickname more deserved. The orchestral playing in the fourth movement is fantastic, opening up vast infinites of space between the notes, and this makes up for a slightly warbly mezzo soloist in Gerhild Romberger. Similarly, the choirs are rather sensible in the fifth movement, so that there’s little sense of childlike joy; but the finale is a worthy culmination of the work. For a start, it’s a slow-burner, and for the first twenty minutes the strings scarcely get above pianissimo, but that makes the payoff in the coda all the more precious: here, it feels like we’re arriving in heaven.

The orchestral playing in No. 4 is excellent too, especially from the strings. There’s a serious edge to the first movement, but the cellos produces beautifully silky tone for the second theme, and that’s only a foretaste of the sensational warm bath they provide in the third movement. In the scherzo there’s a wry sense of mischief to the violin solo but also, importantly, to the winds who cock an audible snook at any opportunity. Haitink keeps the whole thing moving towards the gorgeous lullaby of the final pages, and the only slightly sour note is provided by soprano Juliane Banse, who lacks the necessary innocence and wonder in the finale. In fact, she sounds slightly put upon at the top of her range, and even slightly matronly at times, which is the exact opposite of what this movement should be.

The scale of the Ninth works magisterially, though. For all that it’s unusually fleet, Haitink’s grasp of the vast opening movement swept me along in its vision and power. The conflict between D major and D minor unfolds with admirable lucidity, and the D minor climax, when it comes, is devastating, rightly refusing to hold back or to skimp on power. Again and again, the orchestral playing stopped me in my tracks, be it in the warmth of the string playing or the golden hope (even against all hope) of the solo horn, who is repeatedly called in to provide a glimmer of optimism amidst the devastation. You could the say the same about the finale, with its rich string sound and slightly faster-than-expected tempo. The winds in the central section try in vain to find some hope in the devastation, and the strings lay the symphony to bed beautifully, if not as thoughtfully as I might have liked. The Ländler gallumphs while still managing to find surprising delicacy in the string figurations, and there is some gorgeously sensual playing that is rather more alluring than it deserves to be. The Rondo is savage and fast, with some more standout solos, and it’s here in particularly that I appreciated the really superb recorded sound, bringing out every flash of detail with brilliance and vigour.

I’m not sure I’d necessarily take each of the Bruckner and Mahler symphonies over Haitink’s earlier Concertgebouw recordings – there are still great treasures there – but that doesn’t stop them being top notch performances in their own right, which are capable of seeing off many in the catalogue. The Beethoven and Haydn performances are absolute crackers, though, and cause to marvel at not only Haitink’s longevity but also the way his approach to music can deepen and develop as he gains in years and wisdom. For them alone, this set is highly recommended, and that’s before we even talk about the price, which is an absolute bargain when you consider how much the discs cost when they were released individually. This set celebrates a great partnership of a great orchestra and a great conductor. Long may we revel in it, and long may it continue.

Simon Thompson

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis [79:22] (rec. Herkulessaal, Sep. 2014)
Genia Kühmeier (soprano), Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 [75:43] (rec. Philharmonie im Gasteig, Feb 2010)
Symphony No. 6 [55:15] (rec. Philharmonie im Gasteig, May 2017)
Haydn: The Seasons [66:59 + 66:42] (rec. Herkulessaal, Nov 1997)
Julie Kaufmann (soprano), Herbert Lippert (tenor), Alan Titus (bass)
The Creation [37:46 + 63:22] (rec. Herkulessaal, Dec. 2013)
Camilla Tilling (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-bar)
Mahler: Symphony No. 3 [35:49 + 65:39] (rec. Philharmonie im Gasteig, June 2016)
Gerhild Romberger (mezzo), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-bar)
Symphony No. 4 [56:38] (rec. Philharmonie im Gasteig, Nov. 2005)
Symphony No. 9 [79:53] (rec. Philharmonie im Gasteig, Dec. 2011)

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