Haitink and the LSO: Surprisingly Inconsistent but Much to Admire

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten, Mozart, and Beethoven: Maria João Pires (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 12.2.2013 (MB)

BrittenFour Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’, op.33a
Mozart:  Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453
Beethoven:  Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

There is not a great deal of Britten orchestral music, so this anniversary year will doubtless hear a good few outings for the Four Sea Interludes. I doubt that any will come better than this scorching – drenching? – account from Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra. The opening strings of ‘Dawn’ managed to sound both translucent and brilliant, answered by woodwind marine fantasy and grave foreboding from the brass. The movement was as dramatically pregnant as I have heard, perhaps still more so: what we have lost in Haitink’s continued absence from the Royal Opera House, and what, during that period, the LSO has gained! Britten is at his best when his music is evidently ‘constructed’ – think of The Turn of the Screw, surely his masterpiece – and constructed is just how ‘Sunday Morning’ sounded here. Its building-up of fourths put me distantly in mind of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony and of Bartók. Again, Britten is at his best when rescued from parochialism, likewise the festival he founded at Aldeburgh. Even if some of the movement and much of the ensuing ‘Moonlight’ sounds uncomfortably close to the banalities of Shostakovich, Haitink shaped them very well indeed. The conductor unsurprisingly eschewed easy histrionics in the ‘Storm’ in favour of structural integrity, always a Haitink watchword. The LSO brass were in fantastic form, but so, to be fair, was the entire orchestra. It was then a pity, to put it mildly, that a man seated across the aisle from me started to snore loudly; it was also astonishing, given the decibel and voltage levels. Would that his neighbour had taken the trouble to awaken him, both here and in the Mozart concerto that followed.

The G major Piano Concerto, KV 453, opened with a well articulated, resolutely unsentimentalised tutti. Perhaps, though, Haitink might have allowed the music to smile a little more; Sir Colin Davis would have done. Nevertheless, Haitink’s command of structure remained something for which to be grateful. Maria João Pires’s playing was immaculately turned, her ear for phrasing unerring. Ultimately, though, this first movement never quite displayed the ravishing Mozartian pleasure that it ought. Matters improved in the slow movement: Haitink did not prove too brisk, as he has sometimes done recently. The piano part was poised throughout, Pires exhibiting a touch to die for. Strings were beautifully veiled for the minor mode section, the interplay between them and Pires beyond reproach. Whatever had been missing in the first movement was now certainly present. This was serious, as it should be, but never ponderous. Haitink hit upon just the right Papageno-tempo for the finale; far too often one hears it taken as an Allegro rather than Allegretto, having the late change of tempo result in a mere scramble. Again, Pires’s phrases were exquisitely shaped, though no more so than those of the LSO woodwind. The fathomless profundity of Mozart’s chromaticism effortlessly registered, as did the operatic joy of diatonic release.

The last time before this I had heard Haitink conduct Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, it had been in the very same hall, though with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. In many respects this LSO account proved very similar – sadly, including the problematic nature of the finale. That said, there was much to enjoy earlier on. The introduction to the first movement demonstrated that precision and weight were anything but antithetical. There was a profound sense of inevitability, of something set in motion that would take some time to resolve. A Vivace of almost Brahmsian satisfaction ensued. No ‘points’ were being made; Beethoven’s melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic invention seemed simply to speak for themselves, art concealing art both in composition and performance. How refreshing for an age in which the more extreme the perversity inflicted on Beethoven – it did not start with Harnoncourt, and he is not the worst offender, yet he remains emblematic – the more loudly it will be hailed in fashionable circles. If much of Haitink’s recent Beethoven has proved oddly driven, here at least he seemed to have taken a step back, and attained the sort of implacability one associates with Klemperer. There were incidental pleasures, for instance the backward recapitulatory glance towards the Pastoral offered by the LSO woodwind, but structural integrity was again the overall determinant. A grinding coda bass line was a case in point, never exaggerated, and thus all the more telling.

The slow movement – and yes, I know describing it as such is a red rag to certain bulls – was not undersold; well, not grievously, anyway. It retained considerable darkness of tone and the sense of a processional despite the swift tempo chosen by Haitink. After recent lamentable Beethoven performances in London from the likes of Esa-Pekka Salonen and Vladimir Jurowski, this came as a considerable relief, perhaps particularly given the quibbles one might have had with the performance if considered in the abstract. This flowed in the best sense, even if it remained somewhat earthbound when considered in the light of Daniel Barenboim’s astounding Proms performance last summer. The scherzo veered towards the unduly driven, but for the most part retained a degree of freshness. Haitink permitted a slight relaxation for the trio, though, Romantic that I remain, I could not help but wish for a little more. The LSO woodwind managed nevertheless not to sacrifice all sense of the Mozartian serenade: impressive indeed, at such a tempo! However, the finale, as in Haitink’s Concertgebouw performance, proved relentless, the drive imparted antithetical to Beethoven’s humanity. Orchestral weight remained, but this was a hectoring account: clearly Haitink’s present conception, but one which, despite a breakneck tempo, lumbered rather than danced.


Mark Berry