After More than Three Decades, Haitink Returns to New York Philharmonic

United StatesUnited States  Haydn, Bruckner: Bernard Haitink (conductor), New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City. 19.11.2011 (BH)

Haydn: Symphony No. 96 in D major, Hob I:96 (1791)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-83, rev. 1885; ed. L. Nowak, 1954)

How is it possible that it has been almost 35 years since the great Bernard Haitink has led the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall? Given the sumptuous music-making on display here, many listeners must have been scratching their heads. After loud cheers as he took the stage, the eminent conductor began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 – also making a welcome reappearance, since it hadn’t been performed by the orchestra since 1997. The first movement, deliciously well-balanced, led to a plush, graceful Andante, with some sweet solos from concertmaster Glenn Dicterow. One could almost see the dancers in the Minuetto, with Sherry Sylar’s piquant oboe as one of the highlights. And the Finale, marked “vivace,” was a total delight: fleet, crisp and well-articulated.

Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony has been a more welcome visitor at the Philharmonic – most recently with Kurt Masur in May of 2010 – but Haitink’s affinity for the piece is legendary. (He’s recorded it with the Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic and most recently, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.) Here, he examined its velvety surfaces – rent by shafts of light – with the patience of a man who knows that some things can’t be rushed. In the opening Allegro moderato, the Philharmonic’s cellos entered like gods, and the brass section was having – shall we say – a “more than decent day” in the magnificently paced final bars. In the gliding Adagio, Haitink’s gentleness was like watching him gently nurture a tree growing before our eyes, sprouting in a sinuous trajectory leading to the climax: a single cymbal crash. The Wagner tubas enveloped all with a cashmere embrace, in the astonishingly serene ending.

The Scherzo’s joyous swing – not too fast – showed the orchestra’s ability to summon up power without glare, and the movement’s central Trio had commensurate contrast. And then came the shimmering strings that open the Finale, marked “Moving, yet not fast”; there are few conductors better at nailing the Brucknerian heartbeat. The orchestra seemed energized. Haitink’s ability to find the drama, scaling each peak with ever-more-intense devotion, has few peers.

Afterward I spoke with two friends who had come the first night – and were so impressed that they returned to hear this final concert in the series. As the bravos rained down and the orchestra members themselves joined in the applause, I couldn’t help but envy my pals. I wish I’d done the same.

Bruce Hodges