Inspired Bruckner from Haitink compensates disappointing first half programme change

Mozart, Bruckner : Maria João Pires (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 14.6.2011 (GDn)

Mozart : Piano Concerto No.27 K595

Bruckner : Symphony No.4 ‘Romantic’

A last minute soloist substitution is rarely a good omen. This evening’s LSO concert looked like a sure-fire hit, with Murray Perahia’sSchumann Concerto in the first half and Haitink’s Bruckner Four in the second. But Maria João Pires performing Mozart’s 27th Concerto seemed like a potentially disappointing second best, and so it proved.

Perhaps the circumstances worked against this performance, or at least my enjoyment of it. As the four-square and indistinct opening phrases of the Mozart began, my mind was still filled with thoughts of those sublime modulations of the Schumann and what Perahia might have made of all those delicious piano figurations.

Even so, the performance of the Mozart that followed was uninspired by any standards. Pires gave us all the notes, but without life or passion. The orchestra followed suit, and perhaps Haitink is to blame for keeping the woodwind soloists under too much control. Form and formality have their place in Mozart performance, but in this one that is all we got. The absolute precision of the playing is worthy of mention, Pires’ passage work in particular, and the tight ensemble of the strings. Technically speaking, it was a perfect performance – but in the worst possible sense.

The second half was a different story. Haitink is well known for his Bruckner, and this performance of the Fourth Symphony was up there with his best work. There is a fine line in this music between individuality and affectation. In my opinion, that is a line Rattle crossed when he conducted the Ninth with the LSO earlier this year, but Haitink has an uncanny ability to stay right on the edge without ever taking anything to undue excess.

He is known for his slow tempi, but the outer movements here were surprisingly fast; not so fast as to take the reading to extremes, but brisker than average. The inner movements showed more of his trademark breadth, and the whole of the Andante and the Trio of the Scherzo were both characterised by slower tempi, filled out with opulent orchestral textures.

But whatever speeds Haitink chooses, his subtle and fluid sense of rubato always keeps the music alive. The opening of the finale offers a brief glimpse into the inner workings of Haitink’s Bruckner. The cellos and basses play detached crotchets for about 40 bars, making the subtle increase in tempo and volume explicit. But even here the effect is so gradual that you have to listen hard for it. Less subtle, but just as effective, are the points at which a thundering climax comes to an abrupt halt. Then Haitink holds the pregnant pause for just exactly the right duration, and then a wind or horn soloist, or sometimes pizzicato strings enter, their new tempo pre-formed in Haitink’s mind and providing the ideal refreshment for the musical palette, genius!

The orchestral playing was again superb, but in this half inspired as well. The control of the brass sound in the climaxes was particularly impressive. More impressive, in fact, than the brass in the Chicago Symphony performance of the Seventh Symphony that Haitink conducted at the Festival Hall a few years ago. All the woodwind solos were vibrant and free, even when they were also articulating one of Haitink’s gradual tempo changes. The ensemble of the strings was again of the highest possible order, as was the beauty of the string tone. In short, the Bruckner received a perfect performance – in the best possible sense.

Gavin Dixon

The concert will be repeated on Thursday 16 June, when it will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.