Prom 75: Evocative Alpine Symphony from Haitink and VPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn and Strauss: London Brass (offstage), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.9.2012 (MB)

Haydn – Symphony no.104 in D major, ‘London’
StraussEine Alpensinfonie

What a joy to hear Haydn performed as music – and as symphonic music every inch as rigorous as that of Beethoven! The number of conductors alive who are able and willing to do so is small, but Bernard Haitink may certainly be counted amongst them. It does no harm, of course, when the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic, which will most likely decline to cooperate if a conductor attempts ‘authenticke’ – which, as we must never cease to remind ourselves, is nothing of the sort – perversity. The gravity of the first movement introduction and its thematically generative role were brought out with near perfection, Haydn’s score sounding extremely close to The Creation, which it is. It would have been well nigh impossible, here and elsewhere, to conceive of more cultivated string playing. The exposition proper (repeated) and indeed the rest of the movement showed ‘monothematicism’ for what it is: far more an expression of thematic rigour, of an especial tightness of motivic construction, of every note being essential, than a restriction upon melodic invention. It is almost always a misnomer, but we are probably stuck with it, so may as well make the most of the situation. For the argument was finely articulated – in more than one sense – throughout; it may be a hoary cliché, but in Haitink’s hands, the music seemed simply to speak for itself.

The slow movement bore more obvious signs of Haitink’s recent Beethoven, not always for the better, for it was really quite brisk indeed. The music can work at such a tempo, just about, but the problem was really that it did not smile. Sir Colin Davis knows how to accomplish that; so does Pierre Boulez, whose wonderful VPO recording – no, it is not a figment of my imagination! – lacks nothing in true Haydnesque grandeur either. Still, there was undeniable symphonic rigour to Haitink’s reading, not least in its delineation of the composer’s complex yet seemingly effortless counterpoint. (Not for nothing did HC Robbins Landon observe that Haydn was the last composer for whom the fugue was a natural means of expression as opposed to a tour de force. If an exaggeration, it is a pardonable exaggeration.) The third movement certainly did not drag, but remained a minuet rather than a scherzo manqué. Again, Haydn’s compositional accomplishment, his sheer inventiveness, came unexaggeratedly to the fore. Here, as in the previous movements, Haitink’s use of silence told, putting one in mind of his Bruckner. If the trio sounded close to Beethoven in its thematic working out, that is only because it genuinely is. The drone bass of the finale sounded, unsurprisingly, as a musical necessity rather than an ‘effect’, as it almost certainly would in an Harnoncourt-style freak show. It set the tone for the dynamism of the rest of the movement: everything necessary, everything connected. What a signing off this is to one of the greatest of all symphonic careers!

Attacks upon Strauss’s Alpine Symphony are, if anything, still more tedious than those suffered by many other of Strauss’s works. Anyone is free not to ‘like’ it, of course; liking, let alone love, cannot be commanded. But failing to grasp its structure and considering it simply in pictorial terms marks a failure, albeit a failure that may well be attributable to poor performances. Listen, say, to Mravinsky but once, and you will never have that excuse again. One might say the same of Haitink and the VPO. Very fond though I may be of Christian Thielemann’s recording with this orchestra, Haitink’s intent upon symphonism, different from Haydn’s and yet at times harking back to Classical roots, arguably stands closer to the requirements of the defence.

Even when relishing the dark Wagnerian tones of the opening, Haitink’s reading was far more than merely ‘atmospheric’. Likewise the glorious sunrise. (Though we tend to listen to Strauss far more for the setting than the rising of the sun, as Karajan acknowledged when claiming that he conducted this work for the sake of the Epilogue.) Ascent and later descent were as symphonic as I can recall; we can deal in Nietzschean metaphor here, and doubtless should, but we can equally deal in post-Lisztian, even post-Beethovenian form. And those golden horns, the sweetness of those Viennese strings…! The performance lacked nothing in pictorial terms, whether at the waterfall, or when hearing from the cowbells or the wind-machine, but those terms never became the point. Climaxes told, but were never milked. To what may for some have been a surprising extent, much of Strauss’s score emerged as chamber-like, even as soloistic, as a symphony by Mahler. The sickly sweetness of the phantasmagorical ‘Vision’ was finely judged: undoubtedly present and meaningful, but without indulgence. Organ entries sometimes sounded a little abrupt, block-like; I could not help but wonder whether some judicious use of the swell pedal, or at least more imaginative registration, might have helped, but if that is the only real criticism I can offer… Finally, the glow of the Epilogue simply sounded ‘right’: historically as well as scenically evocative. The lights were going out all over Europe; their relighting we still await.

Mark Berry