ENDNOTES, November 2021
A tribute to Bernard Haitink, KBE, CH, 1929-2021. Stuart Millson on one of the great conductors of our time – a renowned interpreter of the works of Bruckner and Mahler
The recent death of Bernard Haitink – the legendary Dutch conductor, famed for his interpretations of the late-romantic repertoire – represents the passing of a generation in classical music. Haitink, although not one of the autocratic conductors of the recent past such as Karajan or Bernstein, was part of that intensely serious, inscrutable, disciplined, white-tie-and-tails generation which produced the defining discography – Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler et al – dominating the record shelves of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s; shaping our understanding of classical music and European high-culture.
From his earliest days with the orchestra of Netherlands Radio, through his famous years with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, to a productive time in London with the LPO, Royal Opera House and the Philharmonia; then star appearances with the Chicago Symphony and Lucerne Festival orchestras in his late career, the unassuming Dutchman built up a legendary status with audiences. The wild acclamation he received from the Proms audience, although acknowledged and enjoyed, sometimes prompted a wince of embarrassment from Haitink – keen to curtail the clapping, eschew hero-worship and get on with the music.
And what music he made: a Beethoven cycle on the Philips label – and the nine symphonies of Gustav Mahler; a further Mahler Symphony No. 1, this time with the Berlin Philharmonic (the finest-ever version, in the opinion of this reviewer); and a seemingly endless stream of Bruckner interpretations recorded in Amsterdam and Vienna. Many of these great symphonies were brought to the Royal Festival Hall and the Proms – always sell-out occasions, especially Mahler’s immense Third Symphony, a work made for the Royal Albert Hall, and which Haitink gave on more than one occasion – the last being with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2016, marking the 50th anniversary of the maestro’s first Proms appearance.
Yet it was not just the great continental canon of 19th and early-20th-century works which attracted this remarkable conductor: British works, too, brought Haitink into a new orbit – one which probably also increased the international appeal and standing of our own composers. At the 1991 Proms, he conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes; and nine years earlier he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a dramatic performance of Elgar’s First Symphony, in a programme which set Elgar in a wider cultural context, alongside Debussy’s Jeux and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. He then recorded the two (completed) Elgar symphonies with the Philharmonia in the mid-1980s – clean, lithe, sinewy interpretations, made even more memorable by the vivid, even silvery sound of the Philharmonia of that era. No recordings were made of the Pomp and Circumstance marches – although Haitink did include the fifth march from the set in a mid-1980s Festival Hall Elgar concert.
Walton’s First Symphony was also recorded – the veteran composer, from his island hideaway in the Bay of Naples, thanked Haitink for a “fine” interpretation of this stormy and nostalgic titan of a symphony. Again, the Philharmonia contributed first-class, commanding playing and a monumental sound, especially in the slow-burning first movement, and agitated, nervous scherzo – where brass and timpani are used with jabbing intensity. This record released in 1982, was something of an occasion – the first real challenge to Previn’s “definitive” version on RCA with the London Symphony Orchestra – and even warranting a full play-through on Radio 3, shortly after being issued.
Finally, Haitink turned to Vaughan Williams with the LPO – setting down on disc a meditative In the Fen Country, full of misty horizons; an enthralling Sixth, coupled with Ian Bostridge, tenor, singing On Wenlock Edge, the hushed intensity of the A.E. Housman settings, perfectly captured by the artists; and that great quest for the ocean and the soul, A Sea Symphony, all on the EMI label.
Bernard Haitink eventually bowed out with farewell performances of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, often thought of as the most radiant of the composer’s gothic works – and this reviewer feels privileged to have seen the conductor perform the piece, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Dresden Staatskapelle. Privileged, because musicians and audience alike found that they had been brought closer to the soul of the symphony – a rare communion with the composer and a radiant experience for those trying to find, in music, “the heart of the matter”.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Note: Bernard Haitink’s recordings are widely available via many internet outlets. Personal recommendations include, Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 6, EMI 5567622; Mahler Symphony No. 1, Berlin Philharmonic, Philips, 4209362. The 1982 version of Walton’s First Symphony can be heard via YouTube – a curious and strangely hypnotic film of the actual record spinning on a turntable! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euJtNlztOww