Bernard Haitink’s Great Authority in Bruckner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bruckner:Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 20.5.2012 (MB)

Symphony no.5 in B-flat major (revised version, 1877-8)

I rarely find myself in the realm of the juste milieu, ever aware of Schoenberg’s dictum that only the middle road does not lead to Rome. Nevertheless, when it comes to Bruckner, I seem to be somewhere along that road, slightly fearful of where its non-Roman destination might turn out to be. I admire the later symphonies greatly; indeed, the final two I find truly awe-inspiring. However, I continue to find the earlier works problematical, and cannot help but contrast their formal difficulties – devotees will doubtless respond that the difficulties are mine, not Bruckner’s, and perhaps they are – with the unanswerable ‘rightness’ and satisfaction afforded by Brahms. Nor can I bring myself to become hopelessly absorbed in the business of interminable numbers of ‘versions’, though I cannot help but think that some judicious editorial work would not necessarily be a bad thing.

It is testament, then, to the excellence of this performance from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bernard Haitink – ‘in the presence’ of a Dutch princess of whom I had never heard, but who required a welcoming committee and police guard – that there were times when I was almost convinced. Not all of the time, I admit, but I do not recall hearing a better sense of the work as a whole, not even from Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra last year. From the opening pizzicati, orchestra and conductor were utterly at home. The excellence of playing was such that a split horn note registered more strongly than otherwise it would have done. The weight, both sonorous and historical, of the Concertgebouw’s bass line contrasted strongly with the lighter approach adopted by Abbado. This was Bruckner with a reassuringly traditional, almost mediævalist, character to our pilgrim’s progress. There was, moreover, the inestimable advantage of having a great Wagnerian at the helm, even down to the level of the handling, the resounding, of string tremolos. Haitink’s way with – I am tempted to say, ‘creation of’ – the melos, the guiding thread, almost convinced me that Bruckner could develop here, rather than juxtapose. The splendid peals of rejoicing at the end proved a fitting culmination to a journey led by the surest of guides.

Command of line was equally supreme in the slow movement, likewise Haitink’s ability to conjure so gloriously full an orchestral sound – and, of course, the orchestra’s ability to provide it. Lucas Macías Navarro’s oboe solos were an especial melancholy joy. Indeed, the oases of woodwind stillness had me spellbound. I truly felt that the pathways, thickets even, mattered as well as beguiled; Haitink again proved a magisterial guide. The abruptness of transition between material in the scherzo I continued to find bewildering, perhaps bizarre, but everything was wonderfully characterised and the menace imparted to peasant dances proved properly terrifying.

Apparent reassurance in the return of earlier material at the opening of the finale, after the model of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was immediately questioned by the majesty of the Concertgebouw’s brass section in voicing the chorale. One could not doubt the conviction in all the contrapuntal working out that followed, riveting in its way, and yet, does it not actually go on a bit? Does the writing of a fugue not continue to feel like an externally-imposed decision rather than an organic dictate of the material? In a lesser performance, I might have started gazing at my watch, but not here. Nevertheless, longing for a spot, or more than a spot, of Brahmsian developing variation was still felt on my doubtless heretical part. That said, the magnificence of the playing at the conclusion sent shivers down the spine. It was a pity, then, that someone who sounded suspiciously similar to the idiotic purveyor of multiple ‘Bravos’ at the previous Barbican Concertgebouw appearance (under Mariss Jansons) again contrived to make his presence felt immediately.

Mark Berry