Haitink’s Ultimately Cool Beethoven Fails to Ignite

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven: Erin Wall (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Steve Davislim (tenor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 21.6.2015 (AS)

Overture, Leonore No. 2, Op. 72a
Meersstille und Glückliche Fahrt, Op. 112
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125


Beethoven’s brief and rarely performed cantata, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is a setting of two poems by Goethe. Nowadays maritime travellers may welcome a calm sea, but in the days of sail a lack of wind meant that vessels were becalmed – an anxiety-provoking situation for all concerned. In his Meersstille Goethe refers to the “terrible stillness of death”: the quiet, rather restrained music is tellingly punctuated with moments when intense anxiety is conveyed. In Glückliche Fahrt the “winds whisper” a message of optimism and soon there is sight of land ahead. Beethoven’s music becomes animated and joyful, and here the fine London Symphony Chorus had ample opportunity to show off its disciplined energy. The cantata may not be one of the composer’s most significant works, but on this occasion it formed an effective curtain raiser for the Ninth Symphony.

Only the presence of a stool at the back of the rostrum, on which Bernard Haitink rested for a few moments after the first and second movements of the symphony, indicated any concession to his 86 years. Otherwise he stood for the whole of the concert, and his direction was as vigorous as it has ever been: his baton technique has always been a model of clarity and precision.

His tempo for the opening of the symphony seemed just right, and the music was perfectly moulded. But where was the sense of mystery, of a great creation emerging from nowhere and gradually flowering into overwhelming presence? What we heard in fact was a superlatively played rendering of the notes in the score, finely judged and balanced, but ultimately cool in its effect. There was little variation in a steady pulse maintained throughout the movement.

Similar characteristics inhabited the Scherzo. It was again a well-judged, clear exposition of the music, with a good tempo relationship between scherzo and trio. The Andante was kept well moving: there were no ruminations of the kind favoured by conductors of the past, and the music benefited structurally from such an approach. But again Haitink let legitimate opportunities for expression pass by.

The review of past themes that takes place at the beginning of the finale was nicely judged, but lacking in dramatic expression and even the Ode to Joy theme sounded matter of fact when introduced. There was little tension as the movement developed, and matters were not helped when the bass soloist’s introductory recitative was poorly produced. The other soloists were all very good, however, and the group’s contribution as a quartet was effective. Once again, the chorus made a very impressive sound and would no doubt have registered an even better effect if it had been released a little from Haitink’s relentlessly bright but almost metronomic beat. The coda at the end of the work generates its own momentum and energy, so that the work came to quite an exciting conclusion, as it always does, but it was a little too late.

At the beginning of the evening Haitink had directed a performance of the Leonore No. 2 Overture that possessed similar qualities to those which inhabited his performance of the symphony.

Alan Sanders

Leave a Comment