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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op 58 [37:32]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107 [69:54]
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 2019, Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Sound format: PCM Stereo/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0; Picture format: 1080i 16:9
UNITEL EDITION Blu-ray 802304 [116:00]

In 2018, Bernard Haitink announced that after the 2018/19 season he would take a “sabbatical”, accepting no new engagements. No one was fooled: it was clear that he intended to retire from the podium at the age of 90. To the Vienna Philharmonic fell the honour of playing for his last set of concerts, all of which contained this programme. The concert preserved here was not actually his last; these artists went on to perform the same programme in London, at the BBC Proms, and finally at Lucerne. I heard the London concert on the radio and thought it a magnificent experience, as did my Seen and Heard colleague, Jim Pritchard, who had the good fortune to be present (review). Our colleague, John Rhodes managed by some alchemy to procure a ticket for the final Lucerne appearance (review). Though Unitel don’t give the precise date of the Salzburg concert I know it preceded – probably by just a few days – the concert given at the Proms on 3 September 2019.

The soloist in the Beethoven concerto was to have been Haitink’s long-time collaborator Murray Perahia. How bitterly disappointed he must have been that illness prevented his participation in these concerts. But Emanuel Ax, another distinguished pianist long associated with Haitink, was able to step in. Offhand, I can’t think of a more fitting final concerto for this conductor to direct in public. Beethoven’s G major concerto is an ideal vehicle to show us Haitink the Wise. His direction of the orchestra is an object lesson throughout and in Emanuel Ax he has an ideal collaborator. At the end, as the two shake hands the rapport between them is plain for all to see but, in truth, it’s been apparent since the start of the performance.

After Ax’s poised delivery of the opening piano phrase, Haitink shapes the long orchestral introduction marvellously. He’s watchful and his conducting is very clear. Ax plays splendidly; there’s abundant energy but also an aristocratic touch. As the first movement unfolded it seemed to me that everything was just right. There’s a super partnership between the soloist and the refined players of the VPO. I admire Ax’s playing enormously, not least in the excellent account of the cadenza. This is, quite simply, a highly distinguished account of the movement.

I appreciated very much the tonal weight of the VPO strings at the start of the second movement. Ax answers them with Olympian calm and eventually a quiet concord is achieved. The finale is excellent; there’s plenty of vigour and also more than a touch of playfulness in a thoroughly entertaining performance. In this reading of the Fourth concerto there’s so much experience and musicianship to admire. It’s truly a performance to savour; in fact, it’s treasurable.

We then witness a simply marvellous rendition of Bruckner’s Seventh. Bernard Haitink’s very first Bruckner recording was the Third symphony which he set down for Philips with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1963 when he was 34 years old. Here we have his final Bruckner recording at the age of ninety; into this performance, which he directs from memory, he pours all his experience of the composer’s music. And despite his economy of gesture, Haitink is in complete control throughout. Two small details which caught my eye confirm this. About 14 minutes into the first movement a paragraph ends with a rising phrase on violins and flutes. As the phrase ends, we see Haitink give just a slight smile of approval; clearly the phrase has been delivered just how he wanted it. At the end of the Adagio he discreetly but clearly blows a kiss to the orchestra – or maybe it’s just to the horns and Wagner tubas – to signal his appreciation.

The first movement unfolds with a sense of natural authority. Haitink knows just how to shape the music and let Bruckner’s long lines develop. The VPO are clearly on their collective mettle and play magnificently. This is a reading that evidences a lifetime’s experience of conducting in general and of conducting Bruckner in particular. The build-up to the end of the movement is memorable; the crescendo and final peroration are the aural equivalent of a golden sunrise.

The Adagio is a demonstration of Haitink’s patience. Nothing is forced; rather, it seems to me that his pacing of the music is ideal. All the music derived from the first subject is presented in a way that is truly noble, while the second subject has a lovely lyrical flow. At every turn, the conducting is idiomatic and has a sense of inevitability. The VPO offers sovereign playing; in particular, the climaxes open up marvellously. If the end of the first movement was the musical equivalent of a sunrise then the closing pages of the Adagio represent a gently glowing sunset; no wonder Haitink was so pleased.

After the spaciousness of the first two movements, the vigour of the Scherzo is a welcome contrast. This performance has all the vitality one could wish for, the rhythms nicely sprung. The Trio is nicely relaxed. Haitink then leads a fine account of the finale. He judges every element of Bruckner’s argument to perfection and the VPO respond to him with playing that is on an exalted level. Thank goodness that at the end the audience recognises the conductor’s wish to hold the moment; as a result, the last chord decays naturally before the ovation begins.

And what an ovation it is. The audience are soon on their feet to greet the performers with cheers and shouts. They are, rightly, warm in their appreciation of the orchestra, but it’s clear that in particular they want to show their appreciation of a revered conductor on his last visit to Salzburg. Haitink is not one for showing heart-on-sleeve emotion but it’s evident that he’s moved by the reception. The audience’s enthusiasm is fully justified: they had just experienced a magnificent performance by a superb orchestra conducted by a truly great conductor. There are one or two signs of Haitink’s advancing years – he uses a cane to walk slowly onto and off the platform and sometimes he avails himself of a stool during the performances. However, once that baton is raised there’s no sign of declining powers.

This memorable concert has been preserved in excellent sound and vision by Unitel and I’m very glad that one of Bernard Haitink’s last concerts has been preserved for posterity. Humble but authoritative, completely at the service of the music; we shall not see his like again.

John Quinn

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