Bernard Haitink Returns After 33 Years to Lead the New York Philharmonic in Strauss and Beethoven

United StatesUnited States R. Strauss, Beethoven: Cynthia Phelps (viola), Carter Brey (cello), New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor) Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York City, 10.11.2011 (SSM)

R. Strauss: Don Quixote
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op.68, Pastoral

It’s always interesting to hear conductors explain their choice of programming. Earlier this season, Alan Gilbert gave “sadness” as the common connection of an unusually disparate choice of works, which is as vague as saying that “music” is what links the works on a concert program. Bernard Haitink in an interview in Playbill states that his program choices will succeed because the Pastoral following Don Quixote “brings you back to a more intimate music making.” Not to dispute the Maestro, but intimate is not a word I would use to describe a Beethoven symphony played by a moderately-sized orchestra inside a concert hall that seats an audience of over 2500. But aside from the difference in orchestral size, these two works are indeed closer than they might appear at first glance. Both are on the quieter end of each composer’s compositions. There is certainly drama in each, but as Strauss tone poems go, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Thus Spake Zarathustra and A Hero’s Life are considerably more dramatically intense than Don Quixote. As for Beethoven, the Pastoral is by far his most peaceful symphony. Both works start and end quietly and, of course, both works are representative of program music: common for Strauss, rare for Beethoven.

For a conductor of such renown, Haitink appears to be the opposite of what we think of as a “Maestro.” His style of conducting while not quite as restrained as his most famous predecessor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, is one of reserved and concise gestures. Even in the sections marked fff, the orchestra never seemed to reach the loudness or even blaring that at times occurs when Alan Gilbert is leading. In Don Quixote the second variation with its wild and dissonant tremolos sounded not so much like Mahler as Webern. This clarity allowed one to pick out voices that are not normally heard but sacrificed, for example, the intense storminess of the seventh variation and the fierceness of the opening of the ninth. The third variation, the longest in the work, is also the one most difficult to make interesting. This variation suffers from the inherent silliness of program music: attempting to imitate what music never can. Aside from mimicking the sounds of nature, it is impossible to tell a story with music. In this variation we are supposed to hear a conversation between the cello (Don Quixote) and the viola (Sancho Panza). The best one can do here to give the section interest is to increase the tempo, which, unfortunately Haitink, didn’t do. (Although the program notes state that Strauss never wrote an official program guide, one was included in the Playbill, furthering the illusion that you can appreciate music by following a tone poem’s story line. The result is that the listener instead of focusing attention on the music concentrates on the program trying to “hear” the a story that’s not there.)

The performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony succeeded and suffered from the same stylistic considerations as the Strauss opener. The opening movement starts out briskly and continues at a moderate pace. At times there are moments of great lucidity such as at the end of the development section of the first movement where the brass stands out distinctly from the rest of the orchestra. The woodwind imitations of bird calls at the end of the second movement were lovingly performed. While the fourth movement’s thunderstorm was furious, it wasn’t furious enough. The final movement’s gentle iteration of the main theme was repetitious.

Over the past few decades, many conductors have successfully breathed new life into Beethoven’s symphonies: Roger Norrington, Nicholas Harnoncourt and John Gardiner (who will be performing four Beethoven’s symphonies at Carnegie Hall on November 16th and 17th). Those conductors and orchestras that do not have access to original instruments can always cut down on their use of vibrato and work with Beethoven’s own metronome markings (as controversially fast as they are).

Yet even with all of these issues, one can not ignore the New York audiences’s expectations and I understand why: it has been thirty-three years since Haitink conducted the NYPO. This was a rare opportunity to attend a performance by a member of the fading generation of conductors old enough to have heard Strauss’s music while the composer was still alive.

Stan Metzger