Haitink works his magic on Ravel and Mendelssohn

Ravel and Mendelssohn: Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano), Daniela Lehner (mezzo-soprano), Sir Thomas Allen (narrator), Eltham College Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 23.6.2011 (MB)

Ravel – Ma mère l’oye

Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opp.21 and 61

This was a wonderful concert: delightfully programmed and performed, with only the occasional blemish to rob it of greatness. Blemishes, alas, matter more in Ravel and Mendelssohn than in many other composers. After some highly uncharacteristic slight hesitations from the London Symphony Orchestra’s wind at the very opening of the Prelude, Ma mère l’oye was a joy to experience; soon, a veritable magic carpet was unveiled, as Bernard Haitink’s ear for orchestral blend and balance revealed itself. Moreover, the LSO, especially its strings, managed to sound convincingly ‘French’ in tone: not perhaps an absolute necessity in this music but highly desirable. It was perhaps northern France, the warm, utterly un-Boulezian glow edging towards the land of Haitink’s fabled Concertgebouw recording, but none the worse for that. A sharp ear for drama was present too: the Sleeping Beauty’s finger was well and truly pricked, without the slightest need for exaggeration. The dignified sadness that characterised the pavane was an object lesson: nothing maudlin, but the line spun so as to allow a slower tempo than most conductors could sustain.

There were not so many occasions when the orchestra was truly given its head: Ravel does not permit that. When there were, however, the LSO sounded magnificent. Climactic passages, culminating in the final bars of ‘Le jardin féerique’, benefited from a perhaps surprising degree of nervous energy and orchestral bite: none of Debussy’s vagueness here. Solo work was first-class too, not least that of leader, Roman Simovic and principal flautist, the ever-excellent Gareth Davies. The LSO woodwind provided surprisingly realistic – if with a proper hint of Ravelian clockwork – birdsong too: Messiaen, it seemed, might have learned from Ravel. But the final triumph, though supported by the LSO, indeed impossible without it, was Haitink’s: his careful shaping of the closing pages was possessed of an unforced nobility that might have been Elgar’s. Perhaps that is not so surprising when one considers what a great Dutchman conducting such utterly French music might sound like.

Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music was given in a performance edition with narrator by Ara Guzelimian. I rather liked it, and not just because the narrator was Sir Thomas Allen. We discussed his upcoming engagement to perform this work with Haitink in Chicago, when I interviewed Sir Thomas in 2009, and it was clear from the present performance that the baritone’s ambitions, which we also discussed in that interview, to branch out into spoken theatre, are well founded. He has a naturally musical way with Shakespeare’s text, the occasional missed word going for nothing against such a winning and meaningful delivery. The shift into broad Geordie for the rustic prologue was a delight, though I suspect it would have bemused anyone whose first tongue was not English. It was a pity, though, that the Barbican resorted to amplification: it was unnecessary, given Allen’s projection and diction, and undesirable in terms of balance. Sarah-Jane Brandon proved a fine soprano, and the Boys of Eltham College sang splendidly too. The only real fly in the fairy ointment was Daniela Lehner’s mezzo, who sounded as though she were auditioning for the role of Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, quite out of keeping with the other performers.

I was startled at the hard-driven quality of some of the Overture, especially the first group, despite the LSO’s gossamer – the word is as unavoidable as it is predictable – strings. It was a relief that Haitink relaxed for the second subject, but the brass blared and the music turned relentless again during the recapitulation, so that was clearly how Haitink wished to take the music. I was put in mind of quasi-Lisztian bombast, notably absent, ironically, from Haitink’s recordings of Liszt’s music. On the other hand, the moment of exhaustion at the end of the development section was captured to perfection: I do not think I have ever heard it sound so magical. Haitink brought true symphonic and dramatic impetus to the scherzo, which sang with a real sense of woodland danger and emerged far more substantially than in most performances. During the fairies’ chorus, the twinning of trumpets and drums, so characteristic of Mendelssohn, sounded far more balanced than it had during the overture.

As the tale progressed, we even heard Wagnerian musico-dramatic intimations: we were, after all, listening to arguably the greatest living conductor of Wagner. Unfortunately, an exceptionally selfish member of the audience ruined the narrated passage between ‘Andante’ and ‘Intermezzo’ with a long-running alarm. The ‘Intermezzo’ itself displayed a freedom and turbulence that can rarely have been bettered; Haitink’s shaping of the cello line and the cello section’s execution, were ravishingly beautiful. And then, the rustics’ music was captured without overstatement: I could not help but wonder what indignities more exhibitionistic conductors might have unleashed upon it. The great Nocturne was perhaps a little too plain-spoken, at least to begin with; moreover, I should have loved Haitink to dare to take it more slowly and to place less emphasis on the bar-lines. At least, though, it resolutely steered clear of sentimentality. The middle section, moreover, was rivetingly dramatic, doubtless benefiting from Haitink’s long experience in the opera house. There remained occasional doubts: the Wedding March might have smiled a little more – its steely glint seemed more apposite to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony – but the trio relaxed nicely, without dragging. And even if the preceding performance had not proved for the most part so beguiling, the miraculous glow brought by Haitink and the LSO to Mendelssohn’s final chord would have made the visit to the Barbican worthwhile.


Mark Berry