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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 4 [37:32]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 7 [69:54]
Emmanuel Ax (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Rec. live, Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg Festival 2019
HD 16:9, PCM Stereo & DTS-MA 5.1; All Regions
UNITEL EDITION 802304 Blu-ray [116 mins]

I waxed lyrical at great length about Bernard Haitink’s conducting when BR-Klassik released their “portrait” set of his Munich recordings in 2019 (review). I didn’t realise then that 2019 was going to be Haitink’s final year on the podium, the year in which he was to retire at the age of 90. This film captures (almost) the very end of that career, Haitink’s farewell to the Salzburg festival. There would be two more concerts after this, of the same programme with the same artists; one in London and one in Lucerne. However, as far as I know, they weren’t filmed, so this is the one that stands as the document giving us, effectively, Haitink’s final concert, after a rostrum career that had lasted 65 years.

Haitink must have chosen everything about this programme: orchestra, soloist and programme. So it comes as no surprise that he bows out with two works that are not only close to his heart but that seem to speak to a sense of fulfilment at the end, of a journey completed and a race well won. They suit him brilliantly, and serve as a neat summation of all that makes him great.

At the beginning, he walks slowly onto the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus, needing assistance and a walking stick, but as soon as he takes up the baton he has the spry energy of a young man in his twenties. Extraordinarily, though, this is coupled with the wisdom and insight that comes with decades of experience at the top of his profession, and the music this concert produces lives up to all of the expectations of the occasion.

In his conducting of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, his gestures are subtle, but clearly defined. In surface terms it's not an exceptional reading, and there is little in the way of fireworks or revelations; but it's suffused with melancholic warmth and autumnal beauty, particularly the Olympian first movement which can seldom have sounded so purposeful and so full of depth. It touches greatness on nearly every phrase, each bar seeming to reach higher and to stretch for Beethoven's sense of the infinite.

That is in no small part due to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a team of musicians who have known Haitink for decades and come to love him and his manner. The string sound is warm without being overbearing, while the winds are clean and sparky, and musical insights abound. To give one example, I loved the way both pianist and orchestra play that little throwaway phrase with which Beethoven ends the first movement's exposition, and which later becomes the main phrase for the coda: every time it appears it sounds as though it is being held up to the light so that its beauty can be surveyed from different angles, and this is typical of their approach to Beethoven’s musical architecture. I found it both effective and deeply affecting, and it's just one of many details that make this performance special.

Haitink’s other choice of colleague is another trusted partner. Emmanuel Ax sees himself as part of the orchestra, building himself into their sound and playing as very much part of their textural scheme. That's a special virtue in the first movement, where Ax also demonstrates lovely legato in the cadenza, but in the second movement the softness of his tone makes a pointed contrast to the sharp edge of the unison strings, and he plays the finale with filigree lightness that suits the music beautifully. He repeatedly looks towards Haitink or to the orchestra, pointing up the close nature of their collaboration, and you can see him “bravo”-ing the orchestra at the end of the first movement.

Bruckner has always been a special composer for Haitink, and the Seventh Symphony acts as a very fine summation of his life on the podium. He has the score with him but it sits closed on the stand. Even without it, his sense of the symphony’s great scale is completely masterful, verging on the beatific at key moments like the first movement recapitulation. The long build of the crescendos, such as the first movement coda or the slow movement's climax, is a thing of wonder, simultaneously exciting and suspenseful while remaining inevitable. The scherzo is a whirling dance somewhere between heaven and hell, and the finale is fleet-footed – surprisingly so when you consider that it's the final statement of a nonagenarian – building to a golden, soaring peroration at the end.

The orchestra seem to know that they’re participating in something special, and they produce tone that no other orchestra could, not even the Staatskapelle Dresden under Thielemann (review). The strings sound utterly radiant throughout the first movement, right from that upward reaching opening to the blaze of its coda. The winds seem positively to twinkle with light, while the brass ring clean with authority and grandeur. The basses anchor the sound with unarguable authority and dark chocolate beauty. The great tutti surrounding the second movement's climax sounds terrific, and the subsequent solemnity of the brass is superb. Haitink blows them a kiss at the movement break.

By the end he's exhausted, visibly moved, and even a little embarrassed by the audience reception. The standing ovation from the Salzburg crowd blocks the camera’s sight-lines so we can't really see the sectional bows, which is a pity: you’d think the Unitel directing team would have anticipated this eventuality. The other pity is that there are no extra features. You’d thing that, for this of all occasions, some sort of film summarising Haitink’s life or achievement would have been appropriate. That feels rather remiss, and the rather curt booklet essay doesn't make up for it.

That aside, however, this is musically magnificent. There are other performances of both works out there that have many excellent qualities, but for its sheer sense of occasion, this film is pretty much unique. It’s an irreplaceable memento of one of our greatest conductors, and the final magnificent addition to his discography.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn

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