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Bernard Haitink
4 March 1929 – 21 October 2021

With the death of Bernard Haitink at the age of 92 the musical world has lost a personally modest but intensely musical and very determined man who was one of the leading conductors in the six decades to 2019, gradually acquiring greater eminence until his retirement. This seems like the end of an era to me because he was the last of a group of great conductors – Abbado, Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, Karajan and Solti among them - who dominated the musical scene when I was growing up.

Bernard Haitink was born into a prosperous Amsterdam family. Initially, he was an orchestral violinist but he was given conducting opportunities by what is now known as the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. He became that orchestra’s second conductor in 1955 and chief conductor two years later. Tellingly, it was with this orchestra, rather than with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, that he chose to give his final concerts in Holland in 2019. Just in the last few weeks an SACD of the performance they gave together on 15 June 2019 was released (review). I’ve not heard that recording but judging by Ralph Moore’s comments, perhaps the very last performances of that symphony that Haitink gave in August 2019, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic, have stronger claims on collectors’ attentions, whether on audio disc or video.

His big break came in 1956 when at very short notice he stepped in to conduct the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, replacing an indisposed Carlo Maria Giulini in a programme which included Cherubini’s Requiem. The work is seldom performed and few conductors have it in their repertoire but, by chance, Haitink had conducted it some months before. His success led to further engagements with the RCO and in 1959 he was named the orchestra’s principal conductor following the sudden death of Eduard van Beinum. Understandably, at the time some of the players were nervous at the prospect of such a young and relatively inexperienced conductor at the helm of Holland’s premier orchestra, and so initially Haitink shared the job with Eugen Jochum, until 1963.

Haitink remained principal conductor of the RCO until 1988 but as his reputation grew a number of other posts came his way, most notably in England. In 1967 he became principal conductor of the London Philharmonic (until 1979) and from 1978 to 1988 he was also Musical Director of Glyndebourne Opera (where the LPO is the resident orchestra for most productions). In 1987 he became Music Director at the Royal Opera House, a job he held until 2002.

After leaving Covent Garden Haitink had a brief spell (2002-2004) as principal conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden. His final permanent post was as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2006-10). His other notable relationship with an American orchestra was with the Boston Symphony, where he was principal guest conductor (1995-2004) and subsequently Conductor Emeritus. In his later years, especially, Haitink enjoyed fruitful relationships with several leading European orchestras, including the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. In all these cases, the relationship has been documented in a number of live concert recordings.

In the opera house, Bernard Haitink was noted particularly for his Mozart and Wagner performances. In the concert hall, he will be especially remembered for his Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler, though both his operatic and concert repertoire ranged much more widely than these named composers. That was especially true of his time with the RCO, when he conducted a good deal of twentieth century music, including many pieces by Dutch composers. With the LPO he made fine recordings of the three great Stravinsky ballets, the complete Liszt symphonic poems and much else besides.

His long association with England – he eventually made his home in London – included performances and recordings of quite a lot of English music, including Walton’s First Symphony, the two Elgar symphonies and also a complete cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies which I feel has been seriously underestimated. Perhaps underestimated too was his cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies which he made for Decca, using the LPO and the RCO. True, there are more spectacular versions of these 15 symphonies but Haitink’s consistently patient approach brings its own rewards.

He recorded the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies more than once. In both cases his last recordings were made live with the LSO and issued on the orchestra’s own label. Some have fond these recordings somewhat disappointing but I collected them as they came out and enjoyed them very much. From a much earlier period in his career, his Philips recordings with the RCO of orchestral works by Debussy and Ravel still take some beating. In the Indian summer of his career his relationship with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra brought, among other things, a masterly 2014 traversal of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (review). There was also a 2013 recording of Haydn’s Die Schöpfung which arguably lacked a twinkle in the eye at times but which still had a great deal to commend it (review).

I suppose, though, that it is his Bruckner and Mahler recordings that constitute his most important legacy. In 2019, to mark his 90th birthday Decca reissued the cycles of both composers’ symphonies that he set down for Philips with the RCO in the 1960s. (Another Mahler cycle for Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic was begun but never finished and there were also some superb recordings of individual Bruckner symphonies with the VPO, also for Philips). It was typical of Haitink that neither of these RCO cycles were rushed: the recordings accumulated over a period of several years. He would go on to surpass several of these recordings in the future but his first thoughts on all these works are very well worth hearing and, of course, he made the discs with an orchestra which had a long history with these works. For the reissue, Decca paid Haitink the compliment of including a Blu-ray Audio disc in both of these boxes and that shows what fine results the Philips engineers achieved at the time. I think I’m right in saying that these were limited editions but if you can get your hands on a copy of either they are well worth acquiring.

However, if you want to experience Haitink in his more recent recordings, his Bruckner can be heard on the BR Klassik label in a magisterial reading of the Fifth symphony (review) and a superb account of the Sixth (review) There are highly distinguished performances of the Fourth symphony (2014) and Fifth (2011) with the Berlin Philharmonic in a de-luxe boxed set on the orchestra’s own label (review). His recordings of the Fourth and Ninth symphonies on the LSO Live label are very fine indeed. As for Mahler, there’s a 2016 performance of the Third symphony on BR Klassik; I had some reservations about Haitink’s account of the first movement – though not about the rest of the work - but it’s only fair to say that my colleague Michael Cookson was more admiring (review). There’s a noble 2011 account of the Ninth on the same label (review). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s CSO Resound label has a fine 2008 reading of the Second Symphony (review) and also a recording of the First which dates from the same year (review). I also have versions of the Third and Sixth symphony from the same label but these have not been reviewed on MusicWeb.

How should we evaluate Bernard Haitink? He was a modest man who never sought to put himself between the music and the listener. Intensely musical, he was a fine accompanist and, in the symphonic and operatic repertoire, a conductor who knew how to take the long view. Above all, I think it was his patience and sense of structure that characterised his music making and which explains why he excelled in the vast symphonic structures of Bruckner and Mahler. Other conductors might generate more excitement – and that’s a quality that definitely has its place – but with Haitink one always felt the presence of a sure-footed guide to the score in question. He was loyal, too, forging long-standing relationships with the ensembles with which he most readily worked. The admiration in which he was held by musicians is readily evident in John Bridcut’s 2019 BBC film about Haitink. Though he never courted personal acclaim, his final concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2019, prior to retirement, were occasions when those lucky enough to get a ticket were able to show him the affection and respect which was his due. The concert that he gave in Salzburg on 30 August 2019, just a few days before his very last appearance in Lucerne, has been preserved on film. It includes one last display of his prowess as an accompanist, partnering Emanuel Ax in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, followed by a calmly magisterial reading of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (review). As these performances – and John Bridcut’s film – demonstrate, we shall not see his like again.

From the tributes that have flooded both social and mainstream media since his death was announced, it is very evident that many musicians and music-lovers held him in the highest regard, and rightly so. Thankfully, he has left us a recorded legacy that is as substantial as it is distinguished; this will ensure that his reputation will endure.

John Quinn

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