Slow Tempi in Haitink’s Bruckner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Bruckner: Maria João Pires (piano),  London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 21.22013 (GD)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major Opus. 19
Bruckner: Symphony No 9 in D minor (Nowak Edition 1951)

Haitink’s Bruckner has become increasingly slower as he has advanced in age. His first recording of the ninth with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the mid 60s took around 59 minutes, and his subsequent concert performances at that time came in at roughly the same duration, give or take a few seconds either way. In fact this kind of tempo ratio for the symphony corresponded very closely to the tempi chosen by Haitink’s great predecessor at the Concertgebouw, Eduard Van Beinum. Tonight’s performance took almost 70 minutes, considerably slower than quintessentially ‘Teutonic’ conductors like Klemperer and Furtwangler.  In Haitink’s case I don’t think this substantial broadening of the music has anything to do with following the ‘slow motion’ trend adopted by certain celebrated conductors of the recent past. It is more a change in approach which Haitink has thought through carefully in his later years.

Tonight much of the first movement was admirable. From the opening ‘misterioso’ leading to the shattering fff D minor unison tutti, to the contrastng lyrical second subject in A major, which flowed beauitifully with rich harmonies from the strings, there was an impressive structural unity. And Haitink’s decision to deploy ‘divisi’ violins made audible the many sequences of antiphonal interplay. In the central extended statement of the great unison theme in the form of a massive processional brass chorale with spirally ascending/descending string figurations, Haitink didn’t underline or inflect the music in any way. It just seemed to play itself, Haitink doing no more than establishing a coherent rock-like tempo. The first movement coda with its tonal shifts from D minor to E flat and the final exposure of the ‘archaic’ bare fifth all had a wonderful sense of inevitability and discovery right up until the last blazing chord. There was sense of triumph, but one underscored by an ominous intensity and menace.

Despite Bruckner’s religiosity – his dedication of the symphony to dear God (‘dem lieben Gott’), – the Scherzo has a distinctly secular tone, with its pounding accents and bold cross-rhythms. It may even anticipate a 20th Century composer like Shostakovich. Perhaps it is more accurate, in the affective sense, to see/hear a note of Mephistophelean irony here? And irony can be as dark as any tragedy. The movement is certainly no joke as the title Scherzo would imply. Unlike many conductors who emphasise the grotesque power of the music with its bludgeoning assaults of D minor, Haitink played it fairly straight. Everything was ‘there’ but nothing was exaggerated or emphasised. One heard more clarity here than is usual; the striking counterpoint between woodwind and brass was just one example. All this was quite edifying, although occasionally I would have welcomed more dramatic charge as heard recently with Herbert Blomstsedt, especially in the the way he brought sharper impact and more dynamic power to the pounding brass ryhthms with no lessening  of clarity. Not that there was any lack of orchestral weight with Haitink. But, at times, it  tended to sound too literal. The trio made a nice contrast, but I felt  here that the playing, although good, lacked the gossamer finesse and attention to detail one hears with Blomstsedt and with Harnoncourt in his ‘live’ Vienna Philharmonic recording.

The opening of the great Adagio with its ascending chorale theme, chromatically straddling both major and minor, was well realised with trumpets in the major ringing through. And much of the adagio was projected with great confidence. But I didn’t quite have the sense of Haitink making this movement cohere in the way he had managed in the first movement. The wide arching intervals in progression from D minor to D major were well defined, although occasionally there was a sense of hesitancy and tentativeness from conductor and orchestra – and, in several of the transitions,  some quite patchy ensemble, especially in the horns. I am not sure whether or not this was to do with the exceptionally broad tempo Haitink adopted, but there was a distinct reduction in concentration, especially in the progression towards the final great dissonant climax. Gauging this climax is no easy task for any conductor or orchestra, emerging as it does from seven different pitch classes, all more or less around D minor. Conductors like Gunter Wand and Herbert Blomstedt seem to register such structural complexities instinctively. Tonight the great dissonant climax sounded impressive enough. It was certainly very loud with shattering brass and timpani., but I didn’t have the sense of it being unleased, as it were, from the inner structural complexities of the movement, described above.

The concluding gentle declensions to the closing resolve of E major, one of the most sublime moments in the entire symphonic literature, was played accurately enough, but I missed the calm, hushed glow – the sense of ‘dying away’. I heard little of the sustained pp, ppp, so carefully crafted into the score. But here it is only fair to mention the peculiarly dry and restricted acoustic of the Barbican Hall. Bruckner’s music sounds well in a much more open acoustic. I can’t think of an acoustic less suited to Bruckner than the Barbican, and am sure that in an acoustic like that of the Musikverein in Vienna, or the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam the problems in securing the hushed glow in the coda would have been partly or wholly overcome. One could also speculate on the splendidly open acoustic at St Florian’s Cathedral in Upper Austria, near Linz,  where the composer heard much of his music, and also where he is buried.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, which is actually is the composer’s first piano concerto. Haitink deployed a quite large string body and right from the opening tutti flourish I sensed a tone of sedateness. – a well upholstered sedate tone. In fact the Germans have a much more accurate term ‘gemutlich’ meaning ‘warm’, ‘cosy’. In fact Haitink’s conducting here reminded me of the sound performances we used to hear from the old German Kapellmeisters, well crafted and totally musical, but often a little four-square and dull. Beethoven’s ‘Allego con brio’ for the first movement certainly needed more dash, more vigour and a swifter tempo. The sudden key shifts in the exposition barely registered here, and there was nothing of the sharp  horn tone and cutting woodwinds which sound so exciting and fresh in ‘period’ performances. In this respect everything was subdued and in its place. In contrast we heard some brilliant piano playing from Maria João Pires, which was certainly more attuned to the fresh urgency of the music. On several occasions I had the sense of João Pires  wanting to move things along more than Haitink was willing to allow. João Pires and Haitink seemed more in accord with each other in the broad eloquence of the ‘Adagio’. But in the Rondo: Molto allegro, with its sometimes rough humour and sharp accents, it seemed again as though pianist and conductor were coming from quite polarised perspectives.


Geoff Diggines