Haitink and Levit Thrill with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Beethoven

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Beethoven: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Igor Levit (piano), Tonhalle Zurich, 7.1.16. (JR)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 (“Eroica”) 

Igor Levit has been hailed by the critics as “the future” and “the player of the century”; I had not heard him, so was keen to attend this all-Beethoven concert. The critics are, of course, not wrong, Igor Levit is simply phenomenal.

Levit is somewhat short of stature and bends over the keyboard as if to check he is going to hit the right keys: he need have no fear in that regard, of course.  Levit virtually melds himself into the piano. He says he is short-sighted, perhaps too vain for glasses or contact lenses; anyhow he will have to ensure he doesn’t develop back trouble in later years.  In the cadenza of the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto you could have heard a pin drop, so spellbound was the audience. It was as if we hadn’t heard this music before. His virtuosity is breathtaking. In the slow movement Levit’s playing was intensely beautiful, showing off all the colouration possible on the keyboard, spoilt only by the audible onset in some members of the audience of this winter’s flu epidemic (finally, Zurich is experiencing snow and a cold snap). In the final Rondo Levit was impressive whether trilling with extreme lightness of touch, with extraordinary nimbleness of finger-work or when playing with bravura – a real “all rounder”. At 28, he was no apprentice to the experienced conductor; he is already a player of considerable maturity. Haitink and the Tonhalle Orchestra accompanied dutifully. This was a wonderful performance, both conductor and soloist beamed. We were rewarded with an encore, Shostakovich’s “Polka”, great fun. 

Bernard Haitink has been conducting the “Eroica” around the world over the last few years, with different top class orchestras, and now it was his turn with the Zurich Tonhalle. Amazingly, this was the old Dutch Master’s debut performance of the work with the Tonhalle Orchestra, even though he first conducted the orchestra way back in 1964 (Bruckner’s Third Symphony). Haitink’s self-effacing Dutch humility is evident in his Beethoven, no helter-skelter passages or histrionics, no ultra-slow readings for effect, no fussiness with details, no distracting nods to period performance, just a no-nonsense reading of intense musicality which sounds so simple to achieve but relies on the conductor allowing the music to unfold rather than be driven. It doesn’t matter what work Haitink conducts, his approach is always the same. With Bruckner and Mahler, the results are usually sensational, with other composers deeply satisfying and always uncontroversial (I am however aware some listeners can find such straight-forward interpretations lacking mystery, lacking fire). I think back fondly to the 1970s when Haitink and the London Philharmonic introduced me in the Festival Hall to Mahler and, later, Bruckner and Shostakovich – he will always be one of my musical heroes. I am happy to report he seems to be in good shape, only needing a stool to rest, very briefly, between movements.

Haitink normally looks at his score, even with music he knows like the back of his hand, but this time, with the “Eroica” he didn’t bother. His conducting, whilst economic of gesture, was bold and strident (in the best sense), the Funeral March not too slow with plenty of Swiss clockwork precision from the orchestra.  The presenter on Radio 3’s “Building a Library” a few days ago described the Tonhalle Orchestra as “impressive”, and they certainly were this evening, enjoying their special relationship with this venerable maestro. All the principals excelled, it would be invidious to pick any out – a real team effort. This was a great performance of a heroic symphony and, even though it is still early in January, is likely to go into my end-of-year list of musical highlights.

Haitink shows little sign of relish as the audience applauds and cheers him loudly for the decades of fine performances he has delivered consistently. He smiles gently and thanks the orchestra. We leave the hall into the chilly night with a warm glow. 

John Rhodes

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