Magnificent Schubert from Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.


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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 57 – Schubert and Mozart: Maria João Pires (piano), Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Bernard Haitink (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 28.8.2015. (MB)

Prom 57_CR_BBC_Chris Christodoulou_1
Prom 57  CR BBC Chris Christodoulou 1

Schubert – Overture in C major, ‘in the Italian Style’, D 591
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, KV 488
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe presented what will surely be remembered as one of this season’s finest Proms. Not perfect, although it certainly was not far off in the second half, but an experience of such unforced and un-showy, wise and lively musicianship that only someone predisposed not to do so would not have come away buoyed by that experience.

Schubert’s C major ‘Italian’ Overture – there are two, the other in D major – is not amongst his finest works, but it has enough that is characteristic and indeed enough that is fun to merit the occasional outing. Above all, it is what it says: an overture, a genre which seems to have become strangely unfashionable. (In part, that is a consequence of a welcome rediscovery of other ways to programme an orchestral concert than overture-concerto-symphony; that seems, however, to have left some with the idea, triumphantly refuted in this concert, that overture-concerto-symphony is no longer an option, or is somehow intrinsically unimaginative.) The introduction took us quickly from Mozart to Rossini (well, sort of: that can be exaggerated) to Schubert. Ersatz Rossini reinstated in the exposition proper reminded me of the work of both Claudio Abbado and Maurizio Pollini with this wonderful orchestra in its early years, although, especially in Haitink’s hands, Schubert could not help but shine through. Harmonies, key relationships, even rhythm (looking forward to the ‘Great’ C major Symphony) announced kinship clearly, and not only with the composer’s ‘Italianate’ Sixth Symphony. The COE proved spruce, vernal; woodwind playing, unsurprisingly, offered many highlights. And yes, there was more of a sense of the theatre than one tends to find in Schubert’s own opera overtures.

Haitink opted for a very small orchestra for Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto: eight first violins down to three double basses. Especially during a slightly bland first movement, I could not help but wish for a little more, not least given the notorious acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall. Occasional ‘period’ mannerisms intruded, but only slightly: over-emphatic slurring of quavers from the violins, for instance. Compared to most of what we must put up with nowadays, it was almost nothing, but it seemed a pity, allied to slightly thin string tone in the opening tutti. The orchestra sounded fuller following the entry of Maria João Pires. She offered beautifully shaded playing: never fussy, let alone mannered. There was great clarity too, not least, crucially, when it came to her left-hand. And yet, beautiful though this was, the performance, in this movement anyway, never quite seemed to engage with Mozart’s greatest emotional depths, all of which are there. It was not all surface, by any means; but nor did it move to tears, at least in my case.

Mozart’s unfathomable depths are perhaps still more readily apparent in the slow movement. Here, both soloist and orchestra were much readier to explore them. The COE’s Harmoniemusik was exquisite, with the lightest direction – yet one imagined it made all the difference – from Haitink. Pires treated the music as if it were an aria, that ‘as if’ crucial: a singer can hardly sing an aria as if it were one, but a pianist can suggest with her playing, and did. Her evenness of tone was a thing of wonder. So were, for example, the bassoon duets which, more than once, caught my ears. Ineffable sadness, lightly worn, characterised the close. Papageno put in a guest appearance, as he must, in the finale. Again, the COE woodwind were simply ravishing. That treacherous bassoon line at the opening – I remember a bassoonist in my college orchestra unsuccessfully pleading with me, as soloist, to take the movement even a little slower – was despatched as if the easiest thing in the world. Mozart must never, but never, sound difficult. Episodes had their own character and were seamlessly integrated, as if without effort. There were, perhaps, times when a little greater dynamic range would not have gone amiss, but this was otherwise quite delightful.

I was fortunate enough to hear a great Schubert ‘Great’ from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim earlier this year. Ultimately, if I had to choose, I should opt to experience that again, but that is more a matter of Furtwänglerian personal taste than of æsthetic judgement. I can safely say that I have been privileged to hear two great performances in 2015, that art is not, thank God, yet subject to ‘league tables, and that I should thus count myself doubly fortunate. Whereas Barenboim had opened in unforgettable, darkly Wagnerian fashion, Haitink’s first movement introduction – more to the point, perhaps, his first horn, Chris Parkes – had no hint of the portentous; indeed, that opening was almost, but not quite, fragile. The COE, as one would have expected, fielded a smallish orchestra, albeit larger than that for the Mozart: strings, I think, 12:10:8:6:4. This was a performance which certainly did not avoid the darker corners of Schubert’s score, but nor did it dwell upon them. Balance was perhaps the watchword, offering a conception of the composer which perhaps placed him, rather than Beethoven, as Mozart’s most obvious heir – or rather, the most obvious heir of a particular conception of Mozart, such as we had heard earlier. The life we heard in the inner parts was reason enough to celebrate such a conception; brass gently yet unmistakeably reminded us that life necessarily entails death. And, wonder of wonders in these ‘authenticke’ times, although Haitink’s initial tempo had been on the fast side, there was an accelerando to come to the exposition proper. (The idea of anything approaching ‘authenticity’ with respect to a work never performed during the composer’s lifetime is more than usually absurd, but let us leave such irrelevances where they deserve to be left.) Having made that Mozartian comparison, I should add that there were differences too. The strings were far more willing, rather as I wish they had been earlier, really to dig in, often belying their numbers, whilst retaining the transparency those numbers probably aided. Haitink’s development section was fresh with the spirit of adventure, always so keen with this orchestra, and, in the quieter passages, harmonic mystery too. The recapitulation sounded, quite rightly, as exploratory as if it were formally a second development. The coda did not – could not – have the cataclysmic import Barenboim and the VPO had brought to it, but proved triumphant in its own, more modest, way.

The slow movement – yes, I know some people do not like it to be called that, but who cares? – was as fresh as expected, without downplaying stern intrusions, which truly exuded menace. The world of melancholic song was never far away either. Indeed, as mentioned, above, balance, in an almost Abbado-like way, seemed to be Haitink’s watchword. Lengths were truly heavenly; I wished it might have gone on forever.

Style, vigour and, yes, song characterised the scherzo, equally well balanced between such apparently competing tendencies. There was a sense of conversation between the musicians such as one might have expected from a great string quartet. By the same token, the movement’s stature, which one almost inevitably, however misleadingly, is tempted to call Beethovenian, shone through. So, however, did feather-light, yet equally goal-orientated Mendelssohnian presentiments. We could dream, even after Midsummer. The sheer scale naturally also had one think of Bruckner, although Bruckner could surely never have summoned up such lightness and ease. The trio was just as lovingly detailed, very much with its own character, all too easily categorised as ‘rustic’. Not that there was nothing ‘Austrian’ to it, but it should not, could not, be reduced to the realm of the Heuriger, however inviting.

Haitink unfailingly shaped and communicated the contours of the finale, having one almost believe that the music was speaking ‘for itself’; as ever, art concealed art. There was much that so poignant in melody and harmony, perhaps all the more so for the lack of heavy underlining. That pair of oboes brought a tear to my eye, as did moments of Mendelssohnian magic – put to other ends. The final blaze of glory was, again, quite different in character, as it had to be, from that which Barenboim had engendered. There was, of course, no need to choose. Magnificent!

Mark Berry

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