A Fine Performance of Bruckner’s Seventh from Haitink and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bruckner: Murray Perahia (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 15.9.2015 (GD)

Mozart: Piano Concerto in C minor, No 24, K 491

Bruckner: Symphony No 7 in E major

The first movement Ritornello of K 491 was well sustained and sharply accented; the furious C minor over-lapping and dissonant string figurations punctuated by trumpets and timpani  – had a distinctly Sturm und Drang tone, with antiphonal violins (from a relatively large string complement) crucially adding orchestral clarity.  The woodwinds throughout were beautifully articulated and well integrated, while at the same time, making their own distinctive concertante tone ( especially in the Larghetto).  In the complex and extended development section which encompasses a constellation of tonalities, some as remote from each other as E flat and F minor. I occasionally lost the sense of total rapport or dialogue between Perahia and Haitink and I had little sense of the solo part elaborately interweaving in and out of the movement’s superb tonal juxtaposition and counterpoint. But towards the cadenza Perahia picked up playing with his usual elan and sense of drama and structure. As was standard practice Mozart did not write out a cadenza leaving a blank space for the soloist to extemporise. In this concerto, unlike his other piano concerti, Mozart does not indicate a concluding cadenza flourish. Instead the orchestra re-enters with a connecting passage of two bars not to be found anywhere else in this movement, but I didn’t hear this clearly.  The  quite long and extemporised cadenza (presumably Perahia’s own ?) was impressive in its various registers of C minor and other juxtaposing tonalities.

The E flat Larghetto, in five-part rondo form was nicely paced and phrased here; with Haitink, everything sounded natural and spontaneous. soloist and orchestra now much more together. The beautiful woodwind sequences were stylishly played with woodwind more to the fore. The movement’s contrasting of tonal registers between C minor and E flat were well articulated. Together with the Piano Concerto in G, K 453 this is the only one to deploy a finale in variation form. Again textures were sharp and clear. I am not sure that Perahia and Haitink always achieved a sustained Allegretto line and I also missed something of the sense of dialogue between piano and orchestra in the concerto’s final variation in 6/8 time. It was not really commensurate with what Donald Tovey described as the ‘summing up of the work’s pathos’. It was most probably this haunting phrase that made Beethoven exclaim to Ries as they listened to it during a rehearsal: ‘Oh, my dear fellow, we will never have an idea like this’!

Haitink conducted a quite ‘straight’ Bruckner7, by which I mean there was very little tempo manipulation, with an emphasis on structure and line. Bruckner makes meticulous score markings in matters of bar length – the juxtaposition of two bar and four bar phrases, for example. In these matters the composer seems to have had a predilection for stressing the normality of phrase length. But apart from occasional shifts in time registers, in contrast to the initial 2/2 of the E major First Movement, Bruckner does not indicate any radical tempi or gear changes within a movement.  This was evident in the three bar strides leading to the lyrical E major in the cellos and horns, where Haitink let the music flow freely, with the celli and horns sounding warmly sonorous. He found a glowing clarity in the second subject in B major on oboes and clarinets above sustaining horns and trumpets. This third subject, after a dramatic crescendo and pause in the dominant minor, had plenty of rhythmic thrust. The gloriously sonorous theme for cellos, which recalls Parsifal and the mysteries of the Grail, was allowed to ‘sound’ splendidly, while never losing its sense of integration within the whole. In the following C minor tutti eruption, where the first theme is turned upside-down and pounded out in a series of closely worked repetitions, the brass were dominant but perfectly balanced with rest of the orchestra achieving a lucidity and clarity despite the limitations of the Barbican acoustic. All the principal themes return in the recapitulation.with the movement’s diverse key registers, from B major, B minor, to G major and A major, resolving the conflict between B major and minor, and returning to the tonic for a resoundingly resplendent, pedal held, coda, with its wonderfully confident and noble return to the tonic E major.

The great Adagio in C sharp minor is marked ‘Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam’ (very solemn and very slow) and should be taken at a slow pace, but one that never drags.  I have heard performances by Haitink that tended to drag, but tonight everything flowed with plenty of movement (bewegt) especially in the middle section of the movement, initiated by the beautiful violin melody in F sharp major, in 3/4 time, and a change of tempo to ‘moderato’. The two pairs of Wagner tubas (supported by bass tuba) sounded well, as did the full string phrase with the same motive as in the ‘Non confundar in aeternum’ from the Te Deum. In the above mentioned ‘moderato’ with the sublime F sharp major violin melody Haitink let the music flow in the most spontaneous and forward moving way. The great C major climax heralded by a return to the first theme in the tonic, embroidered by rising semiquavers in the violins, was impressively articulated. Haitink included the additional cymbal clash and timpani rolls in the climax, initiated by conductor Artur Nikisch, who conducted the first performance. Yet there is no evidence that Bruckner wanted this percussion addition; it is certainly not in Bruckner’s autograph score. Some have argued that Bruckner approved Nikisch’s emendation, but Bruckner, as we know, was extremely malleable and would agree to virtually anything if it meant his music would be performed. If he did intend the percussive additions, surely he would have included them in his autograph score? I have always thought that it sounds a tad meretricious added on, even when deployed by a conductor like Klemperer. This is especially the case after hearing how effective the passage sounds without cymbal clashes etc, from such experienced and respected Bruckner conductors as Bruno Walter, Hans Rosbaud, Günter Wand and Harnoncourt. Haitink timed the climax perfectly – everything was so well integrated – almost convincing me of its ‘authenticity’.   The concluding Wagner’ threnody in the lower brass, the ‘Non confundar’ theme’ initiating the return of the tonic C sharp of the movement’s opening, and the coda, now in the consoling major, were all imbued with a haunting ‘Wagnerian’ aura.

The Scherzo (which is really no joke) marks a contrasted tonal register of A minor (hitherto almost completely avoided). Haitink gave a relatively straightforward reading. But there was nothing of the bland run-through here, the opening pp 3/4 rhythm in the strings projecting so well the sense of agitated drama, but with none of the unnecessary tempo manipulation heard from older conductors like Furtwängler and Kabasta. The strongly rhythmic theme on trumpets, with a falling clarinet, all heard within the space of eight bars and becoming the basic material for the whole movement, were intoned with absolute clarity tonight. The trio marked ‘etwas langsamer‘ (rather slower) was just that. Such clarity was partly achieved with a minimum of vibrato (especially in the strings) and the deployment of antiphonal violins. But overall the LSO excelled itself, playing in absolute accord with Haitink’s vision.

The finale is Bruckner’s most economically unified: cardinal tonal registers from the earlier movements such as E major, A flat major and minor, and C major form the basis of the movement’s harmonic, thematic material, but undergo subtle transformations and modulations. Again Haitink conducted in a  non-interventionist manner – the art of interpretation which conceals interpretation! The tutti brass chorale themes, foregrounding the block-like structure of the movement, were  compellingly contrasted with the more lyrical dance-like (ländler) sections, the massive weight of the brass made their powerful effect while never sounding heavy or bombastic in the older Teutonic sense. Bruckner’s elaborately formed accompanying counterpoint in strings and woodwind again intoned with lucidity and clarity. With the last enunciation of tutti brass re-statement followed by the beautiful chorale string theme, the lead in to the coda proper never sounded ‘added-on’ as is sometimes the case. With Haitink it emerged from the preceding inner depths of Bruckner’s monumental symphonic design blazing away in full glory to the symphony’s triumphant close.

Together with the magnificent Bruckner from the 91 year old Stanislav Skrowaczewski (with the LPO) this Haitink Bruckner was the finest I have heard ‘live’ for a long time. There were a few tuning problems. But these were insignificant (almost a given in any ‘live’ performance) compared with the overall splendour. I would like to hear Haitink in Bruckner in a more acoustically open and generous acoustic than that offered by the Barbican. Of course the Concertgebouw comes to mind,  but also St Florians Cathedral near to Linz, where the composer is buried.

Geoff Diggines

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