A Perfect Bruckner Eight from Haitink and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival 1 – Bruckner: Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum (KKL), Lucerne, 19.8.2016. (JR)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8

This year’s Lucerne Festival kicked off a week ago with two performances of Mahler’s colossal Eighth Symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand” (Riccardo Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra), which I sadly had to miss. The Festival’s theme this year is “Prima Donna”, highlighting female composers, conductors, soloists and singers – more on this in later reviews from the Festival.

This concert celebrated Bernard Haitink’s 50th concert at the Festival; his first was in 1966, 50 years ago. The programme printed all 50 concerts; they included 12 Bruckner symphonies, 5 Mahler symphonies, one Shostakovich (his Fourth), some Beethoven, a Schubert Ninth, some Debussy, Brahms and Dvořák: that just about sums up Haitink’s core repertoire. No surprise then that Haitink chose to conduct Bruckner’s Eighth, arguably his finest symphony, for this occasion, and thankfully without a Mozart symphony as an unnecessary starter.

As a musical friend (who knows his Bruckner) said right after the concert, this performance was “just perfect”. There is really not much more I can say about such a flawless performance and experienced interpretation of a monumental work. One expected no less before the concert. The exceptional acoustics of the KKL (as it’s known here) helped greatly (having just returned from the rather woolly acoustics of London’s Royal Albert Hall where I heard a decent Mahler’s Fifth under Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra).

Haitink now allows himself a stool at the back of his podium, but uses it only between movements and very occasionally during a longer movement, during a quieter passage. Surprisingly he used a score: he used the Leopold Nowak edition of this symphony, whilst normally, I think, a friend of the much later Robert Haas edition. By the end of the performance, Haitink showed his age, but not in the way in which Karajan, Abbado and others did in their final years, making one fear whether one would ever hear them again. Haitink still seems to have surprising energy and stamina in reserve. At the moment, the very finest Bruckner conductors are old men – Haitink (87), Blomstedt (89) and Skrowaczewski (92).

It helped that Haitink had at his disposal a top class orchestra, described by a well-known classical music blogger as “the envy of the continent”.  Having originally been hand-picked by Claudio Abbado, it is drawn from the principals of Europe’s finest orchestras, supplemented by Music Professors (most ex-Principals of prestige orchestras themselves), some renowned Chamber musicians (Clemens and Lukas Hagen of the Hagen Quartet) and then the remaining gaps filled by members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. In the Bruckner, Reinhold Friedrich (trumpet), Ivo Gass (horn, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich) and Chiara Tonelli (flute) stood out, as did the pair of harpists and not least the Dutch timpanist, Raymond Curfs, Principal at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, who was eminently watchable as his sticks rose way above his head.

Haitink showed us why Bruckner described this work as a “Mysterium”, bringing out the mystery of the quiet passages in all movements, whilst not holding back in the many brass outbursts. I repeat myself: it was all simply perfect.

John Rhodes

1 thought on “A Perfect Bruckner Eight from Haitink and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra”

  1. John Rhodes, in his review of Haitink’s Lucerne Bruckner 8, repeats the term ‘perfect’ several times in relation to the performance. The word perfect, in its Latin and French derivations, emphasises ‘completeness’. Completeness is not a quality one usually associates with Bruckner. He had extreme difficulty, particularly in last movements, in making the symphonic structure cohere as the myriad different editions of his symphonies seem to confirm. But in a sense.and paradoxically, it is these structural difficulties, imperfections, which make Bruckner so interesting, especially if we go to the original versions. I have heard Haitink in the Bruckner many times, both on record and ‘live’ in concert, and although he is certainly a fine Bruckner conductor I have always sensed a certain lack of drama, even a tame quality, when compared with likes of Blomstedt and Skrowaczewski, and older conductors like Klemperer, Abendroth , Rosbaud and Horenstein at their best. A good Haitink Bruckner performance can satisfy, but rarely can it overwhelm. There is a certain ‘unheimlich’, even terrifying aspect to Bruckner which Furtwängler, and the above mentioned conductors understood well, but which is alien to Haitink. And in Mr Rhodes terms, this is less than ‘perfect’, if that term can even apply to Bruckner or Haitink??


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