Deeply Musical Brahms Once Again from Haitink and the COE

NetherlandsNetherlands  Brahms: Janine Jansen (violin), Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 29.11.2013 (MB)

Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73

Two of Brahms’s greatest works in very fine performances in the Concertgebouw: a perfect choice for one of the hall’s 125th anniversary ‘jubilee concerts’. Without being oppressively nationalistic – the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is, after all, by its very nature anything but – it could reasonably be seen as a matter of Dutch pride too: hall, conductor, and soloist representing the very best of the Netherlands’ cultural life.

Bernard Haitink, Janine Jansen, and the COE certainly made for a fine team in the Violin Concerto. There was little loss in what might have been thought the ‘restriction’ of chamber-size Brahms. For one thing, the orchestra throughout played with great fullness of sound and no preposterous scaling down, let alone elimination, of vibrato. That is, the size of orchestra – Meiningen or otherwise – was not the point; this was simply a manifestation of great musicianship. A translucency one would associate with the orchestra’s founder, Claudio Abbado, remained, but there were few occasions when anyone would reasonably have protested at a lack of body. The hushed moments, for instance, following Jansen’s exemplary account of the first movement cadenza, truly drew one in to listen with great intent, but that was not at the cost of due vehemence – minor mode passages in particular – elsewhere. Haitink’s command of the music’s ebb and flow, above all its harmonic rhythm, was enough to make a Schenkerian out of the most hardened Schoenbergian. Not that there was no sense of developing variation, either here or in the two following movements, but the work emerged as a ‘classic’ in a newly-minted yet time-honoured sense rather than as a harbinger of what the twentieth century would bring. Jansen’s intonation was well-nigh perfect throughout, her tone perfectly centred, and her dynamic palette impressively varied without there being a sense of undue exaggeration. So much did her performance seem to emerge out of the capabilities of her instrument – and of course her artistry – that this seemed to be a concerto ‘for’ rather than ‘against’ the violin. The slow movement was songful, glorious in its evocation of Mozartian Harmoniemusik; it was not only the principal oboe who deserved special mention; so did the entire woodwind section, a veritable collection of serenaders. Jansen’s interaction with them was as first among equals rather than star soloist, expertly guided with a light yet firm touch by Haitink. The finale emerged with an utterly convincing balance between ‘Hungarian’ virtuosity – never for its own sake – and ‘German’ Urlinie. I could not find fault with a single aspect of this performance; nor should I wish to try.

The Second Symphony received almost as fine a performance, my sole reservation concerning the finale. Once again the COE’s playing was beyond praise, even though here there were times when one might have wished for a larger band. (Not so many of them, though, I have to admit.) All-too-easy summations of this as the ‘sunniest’ of Brahms’s works sounded as irrelevant as they are. Deeper undercurrents, again founded in Haitink’s harmonic understanding, were given their due: again permitted to emerge with an art that concealed art, apparently ‘natural’, rather than underlined. Indeed, the weight of the first movement registered to an extent such as one rarely hears, the exposition repeat fundamental to the musical conception rather than a formalistic nod. There are arguments either way, of course; the question is what works in any particular case. The special character of the inner movements was keenly observed. Once again, Brahms’s Viennese predecessors came to mind, and more importantly to the heart’s perception. Mozart and Schubert, rather than the first movement’s Beethoven, were very much present: benevolent, inspiring ghosts. The finale, however, I could not quite come to terms with. It was fast, indeed faster than I can ever recall hearing. Crotchets per minute are neither here nor there, but Haitink, as in some of his recent Beethoven, seemed intent on driving too hard. I can understand the desire to rid Brahms of ‘autumnal’ clichés, just as much as those of ‘summer’, but this music does not lose its true excitement if it is given time to breathe. There was much to admire, and the playing of the COE continued to impress greatly, but it did not – to me at least – seem a reading quite in the spirit of what had gone before.

Mark Berry


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