Bernard Haitink's powerful effect on the orchestras he conducts has been striking in the Barbican series, even the Berlin Philharmonic did not disappointby Stephen Everson / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
A Mahler feast Bernard Haitink is 75 this year, and to celebrate this the Barbican has presented a series of concerts throughout the year in which some of the orchestras with which he has been most closely associated have performed works that have been central to his repertoire. In March, the Concertgebouw played two concerts, covering, among other things, Debussy’s La Mer and Bruckner’s 9th. The Debussy was an important inclusion: outside the opera house, Haitink is most closely associated with the Austro-German symphonic tradition and it is often forgotten how idiomatic an interpreter he is of French music, to which he brings, as he did at the Barbican, both a welcome clarity and a keen sense of orchestral colour. The series will end in November with the Dresden Staats-kapelle playing Weber, Hindemith and Beethoven, but in between it has properly been dominated by Mahler, whose symphonies Haitink did so much to bring into the centre of the orchestral repertoire. In April, he directed the Vienna Philharmonic in the 9th symphony, in June the London Symphony Orchestra in the 6th, and in September the Berlin Philharmonic came to play the 3rd, the high point of the series.
One thing that has been made very clear through the year is how powerful an effect Haitink’s presence has both on the orchestras he conducts and on British audiences, whose affection for him is obvious as soon as he walks on stage. Of musicians, only Brendel appears to have quite the same personal authority with a London audience. In part this is because they are both great European musicians of international stature who have chosen to work so much in Britain (and in Brendel’s case to live here), but it is also because they are both musicians who do not seek to impose their personalities on the music they play. Orchestras too are responsive to this central quality of Haitink’s music-making. As Albrecht Mayer, the BPO’s principal oboist, put it to me the day before their Mahler 3: “his personality is very warm, very kind, but in the moment of the concert, he steps back for the sake of the composer, which means that it will be really Mahler and not Haitink. The whole orchestra loves that.”
There are still some people who think that this kind of self-effacement leads to bland performances, but that belief could not have survived any of…