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Haitink early 4PS51

Bernard Haitink (conductor)
The Early Years – Volume 4
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Hebrides Overture Op26 (1832) [9:32]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Symphony No.7 in D minor Op70 (1885) [35:47]
Béla BARTÓK (1881–1945)
Concerto for Orchestra Sz.116 (1943) [35:34]
Concertgebouw Orchestra
rec. 1959 (Dvořák) 1960 (Mendelssohn, Bartók), Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
BEULAH 4PS51 [80:53]

The long and glorious Indian Summer of Bernard Haitink’s career made his concerts and recordings such a significant feature of the classical music scene that we have won’t fully appreciate his loss until Covid recedes and concert going returns to normal. In the meantime, we have releases such as this series from Beulah, of which this is Volume 4, to remind us of what a superb musician he was. We have grown accustomed to the calm wisdom and seemingly effortless naturalness of his music making towards the end of career. It is therefore something of surprise to hear just how fiery these performances from its outset are.

The highly combustible account of the Hebrides Overture is a case in point. Long before anyone had even heard of historically informed performance, this is the very antithesis of a grand, leisurely if old fashioned rehearsal of the piece. Textures are lean and focused. There is no misty eyed lingering over Scottish landscapes here. Everything is focused on the symphonic structure of the piece and it is extremely dramatic. The usual Haitink virtues are already clearly in evidence – an absence of sentimentally and ego, clear unfussy decision making, superb balance – and despite what we know about the unhappy relationship between orchestra and conductor, the Concertgebouw play at the very top of their game. This was the first recording they made together so perhaps this was before the rot set in. Some might find it a little driven but I found it totally compelling. Haitink revisited the work as part of a cycle of the symphonies with the LPO but this time the voltage was much lower.

I am not aware of Haitink recording the Dvořák 7 again which is strange in itself as this version is superb. The sound throughout is a real asset. These recordings were all previously issued on Decca as part of set entitled The Art of Bernard Haitink in 2009. As polished by Beulah, they sound new minted. The quality of the sound is strikingly bold and detailed. Comparing their remastering with the 2009 incarnation the most noticeable difference is that violins have more body above the stavein the Beulah release though there isn’t a lot to separate them. One obvious advantage enjoyed by Beulah is that these recordings are not buried in a huge box set.

As for the performance, this is a match for my two personal favourite accounts – a fiery Kertesz with the LSO and Maazel with the VPO overcoming horribly boxy early digital sound to play their socks off. Strangely, this Beulah gives nothing away to either of those rivals sonically and the Concertgebouw are more than a match for all comers.

This Dvořák 7 benefits greatly from Haitink’s characteristic decision to not intervene too heavily interpretatively. This particular work can end up sound blousy and overblown if the rhetoric is pushed too hard. Haitink understands how this music goes and lets it flow. He springs the dance rhythms of the scherzo like a natural born Czech to boot. The slow movement- one of the composer’s greatest – achieves an near ideal balance between ripeness and passion. I have no idea why this particular recording has failed to get the credit it deserves. In some ways it mirrors Haitink’s career which tended to get overshadowed by other more publicity hungry rivals mentioning no Karajans.

After all this excitement, the otherwise fine performance of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra sounds rather more ordinary. It is definitely worth hearing for the fineness of detail conductor and orchestra find in the score but I found it a little lacking in mystery and fire. Haitink does Bartók the favour of treating this as a genuinely symphonic score and the finale in particular flourishes from this approach. The final climactic statement of its big tune has the weight of a carefully planned and paced, cumulative approach where other rivals strain for effect. As a performance, it resembles Haitink’s cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies – immaculately prepared and executed with a scrupulous avoidance of extraneous effects. Personally, I like a bit more show business to this particular piece and the roughly contemporaneous Reiner recording from Chicago is still my preference amongst older recordings.

Good though this Bartók is, it is the Mendelssohn and the Dvořák that make this an essential listen. I half expected this release to be historically interesting but it is much more than that. Bravo yet again to Beulah for finding it and for their wonderful work at making recordings over 60 years old sound quite so good.

David McDade

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