ENDNOTES, July 2019
A great conductor at 90, by Stuart Millson
A packed auditorium, whether in London, Amsterdam, Boston, Berlin or Chicago and sustained applause which continues for much longer than is usual – the chances are that the conductor is Bernard Haitink, the Dutch maestro who – this year, at the age of 90 – announced his retirement. A commanding, yet curiously self-effacing presence on the podium, Haitink began his career in 1954 in his native Holland, with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, studying and performing the essential core repertoire. Noted for his inspired and detailed performances, he soon approached the pinnacle position in his country’s musical life – the Concertgebouw, later, Royal Concertgebouw, whose role as principal conductor he held for nearly 30 years.
During these decades, thanks partly to an extensive and prominent recording schedule for the Philips label, the Concertgebouw became the natural rival to the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras; with Haitink setting down masterly interpretations of the Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler symphonies – the two latter late-romantic composers becoming the figures with which the conductor would be so associated. In fact, Haitink contended that the musical world should place a limit on the number of Bruckner and Mahler performances – as the fashion for this repertoire, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, threatened to diminish its standing.
Yet Haitink performed, recorded and broadcast the symphonies on an unprecedented scale: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony televised, live, by the European Broadcasting Union from the Concertgebouw on Christmas Day 1986 – a rendition of extraordinary detail, not least in the sinister pizzicato in the scherzo third movement, in which Haitink’s string players brought their instruments, it seemed, to the very edge of physical capability. A monumental account of the Eighth Symphony came in 1988, again broadcast across the classical music channels of Europe – the Concertgebouw being joined by the Dusseldorf Städtischer Musikverein Choir, and achieving in the torrent of music that is the Veni Creator Spiritus opening, a symphonic power which this reviewer has yet to hear repeated.
Haitink also played a major role in British music-making, becoming principal conductor of the London Philharmonic – recording Holst’s The Planets– a work he brought to the 1984 Proms, this time with the Philharmonia. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Glyndebourne opera also beckoned, and a golden era for these companies followed under his baton. He even brought the Covent Garden Orchestra to the Proms for a purely symphonic concert – the usually unseen, pit-bound players revelling in the resounding acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, in Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Elgar’s First Symphony. British music greatly appealed to Haitink and whereas other international conductors, such as Sir Georg Solti, had gone to Elgar but no further, the Dutch maestro pushed further out, with Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (an EMI recording with the LPO) – and indeed, creating a cycle with included the other eight symphonies, plus the symphonic impressions In the Fen Country and Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1. Perhaps the loneliness of the low-lying Dutch coastal landscape found its way into Haitink’s approach to Vaughan Williams’s coastal scenes.
The London Philharmonic was dear to the heart of this remarkable musician, but after (another) great performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 at the Royal Festival Hall at the end of the 1980s, some of the players expressed disappointment when Haitink travelled to Berlin to record the piece. Although the Berlin recording became the toast of the critics, this reviewer wished that the microphones had been present for the live concert with the LPO. Somehow the audience presence and natural tension of a live evening, seemed to spur the ensemble and conductor to a spiritual attainment, not quite matched by the technically-brilliant studio version.
Looking back across the Haitink discography, so many great productions stand out – but one is always drawn to a Debussy collection (made in Amsterdam): the Trois Nocturnes, and the Danse sacrée et danse profane, which conveys the special character of one of Europe’s greatest conductors: a deep reserve of understatement and gentle direction – yielding a slowly-unfolding atmosphere, but then – an instantaneous passion summoned in seconds by a sharp, swift cut of the baton which always brought orchestras to their best.
His presence in our concert halls and opera houses will be greatly missed, but we have no hesitation in offering our tribute and greeting to Bernard Haitink in this year of his well-earned retirement.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review
Suggested recordings: Mahler, Symphony No. 1, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Philips – 420 936-1; Debussy, Trois Nocturnes, Philips – 9500 674; Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 6, In The Fen Country, Norfolk Rhapsody No.1, On Wenlock Edge, London Philharmonic Orchestra, EMI 7243 5 5676221