Haitink and the LSO in Mozart, Bruckner – and Purcell with a Twist!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, Mozart, Bruckner: London Symphony Orchestra, Maria João Piraes (piano), Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 14.6.12 (Gdn)

Purcell: arr. Stucky: Funeral Music for Queen Mary
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it – that’s the LSO’s approach to Bernard Haitink’s annual visits. Every year he comes to London and gives three concerts in a week. Maria João Pires gives a Mozart piano concerto in the first half of each, and they usually conclude with a Bruckner symphony. Loyal audience members can be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu.

And it ain’t broke. Even in his advancing years, Haitink remains a safe pair of hands in the core repertoire. Watching the slow physical decline of many conductors of his generation, and younger, can make concerts by senior maestri an uncomfortable experience. But Haitink is still going strong. It helps that he has always favoured slower tempi and efficient physical directions – the trademark Haitink approach has never relied on athletics. Tonight’s concert had its flaws, but it was clear from every bar that we were in the presence of a conductor who continues to earn the top billing that he has commanded for so many decades.

The concert opened with something of a surprise, Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, arranged for winds and percussion at Salonen’s request by Steven Stucky in 1992. Given that most of us are familiar with the march mainly from modern instrument performances, the arranger’s job would seem to be inconsequential. But Stucky adds in some surprises, some minimalist ostinato from the piano and harp and more percussion than the music can comfortably handle. The result feels a little sanitised, as if Purcell’s austere chords have been arranged to fit into a Hollywood soundtrack, but their power remains. A great performance here from all the brass players, who relished the opportunities offered by an arrangement that really plays to the strengths of their modern instruments.

Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto earns its place in the repertoire through its seductive slow movement, and that was the highlight of Pires’ performance. She affords the music its elegant and dignified simplicity without ever adding too much in the way of rubato or dynamics. The outer movements, and the finale in particular, contain a lot of trivial passage work, and it’s not the pianist’s fault that these failed to hold the attention. Pires has a soft touch, her attack on each note is decisive but it’s just not very hard. This meant she sometimes risked being swamped by the orchestra, who played sensitively but could have done with a few less desks of strings.

Haitink’s Bruckner Seventh is a known quantity to London audiences, and there were no real surprises in his interpretation this evening. That didn’t matter, because he really has the measure of the piece, and his handling of every phrase speaks of decades of valuable experience. As with the Mozart, the Adagio was the real gem here. Haitink took it relatively fast, which in combination with the well-sustained string tone allowed the overall structure of the movement to retain the foreground. Conversely, the Scherzo was on the slow side, but this allowed Haitink to highlight the stylistic distinction between the intense, dramatic music and the more rustic interludes.

In the finale, Haitink’s articulation of the phrases and his build-ups to the climaxes was textbook stuff. It seems so natural when he does it, yet the many failures in this music by his younger colleagues attest to the fact that real skill is needed.

The LSO strings were on top form, and their playing was a particular treat in the Bruckner. Not so the winds though. The woodwind and especially the brass struggled to get into the groove in the first 10 minutes or so of the symphony, and even when they did it never quite clicked. An essential ingredient of Haitink’s Bruckner is turning the brass up to 11 in the finales, and while they provided the dynamics he was after, the tone quality suffered. That’s unusual for this band, but then we are talking about very loud dynamics indeed, which combined with Haitink’s famously slow tempos doesn’t make things easy for the back row of the orchestra.

That was a shame. It took the shine off what should have been a transcendental finale. But there was plenty to relish in the earlier part of the concert. Next year, Haitink and Pires are back for Mozart’s 17th and 21st Concertos and Bruckner’s 9th. We know what we’re getting and we know it will be good, just so long as the brass can keep it together in that scherzo.

Gavin Dixon