Haitink and Schiff: Two Giants of the Musical World, Two Magnificent Works

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Beethoven & Bruckner: Sir Andras Schiff (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 8.12.2016. (JR)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5

Bruckner – Symphony No. 9

Two giants of the musical world came together at the Tonhalle in Zurich this week to provide a heavyweight start to the festive period’s celebrations. We were not disappointed. The concert was given three times and sold out each time.

Schiff’s intellect is well-known and it comes through in his playing. If you want flamboyance or idiosyncrasy, then Schiff is not for you; Schiff is firmly in the “Old Masters” school and a majestic work such as the “Emperor” demands no less an interpreter. Schiff makes it all look so easy; at the end he looked composed and relaxed, as though he could simply continue playing the other four piano concertos (instead we got a delightful Schubert “Impromptu”).

In the opening movement of the “Emperor”, Schiff – when not playing – conducted with his head – one forgets he is also a conductor nowadays; luckily the players were not distracted and were watching Haitink. It just showed Schiff’s level of complete involvement with the music as a whole. I hardly made any notes during the concerto, a sign that everything seemed just right. Schiff was utterly spellbinding in the slow movement and youthfully playful in the Finale. Of course he never put a foot (or finger) wrong. The rapport between conductor and soloist was evident throughout – Haitink and Schiff are old friends.

Haitink nowadays takes much of what he conducts a little slower than he used to, and I don’t believe it’s down to his age, though it’s a trait one spots in many older conductors. I think it’s added maturity (young conductors often like to take everything fast) and with Bruckner’s magnificent Ninth it works because Haitink is a human metronome, he never wavers from the tempo he has selected for any passage. His clenched fist demands power and that is what the Tonhalle Orchestra – who clearly adore him – gave. Haitink is the great conductor the orchestra never had and they are fortunate that he is now quite a regular, living conveniently down the road (in Lucerne).

The opening movement was thrilling, with colossal power, I sat behind the horns and timpani and was blown out of my seat.  Bruckner’s Ninth would be even more often played and revered, I think, if Bruckner had been able to finish it. As it is, three sublime movements leave one begging for more, especially as the final slow movement contains, right before the end, a violent discord telling us both that Bruckner suspects his end is nigh and also that he would not be afraid to take his music screaming into the twentieth century. The final page was radiant, with some very controlled playing from the string sections and confident horns.

The orchestra played at their very highest level of concentration and virtuosity – they sounded very much like a world-class orchestra and all the players stamped their appreciation for Haitink at the end. The complete horn section, all eight of them, led by Ivo Gass, were phenomenal, as was the timpanist Benjamin Forster – they deservedly received their own special applause. But the real ovation was for Haitink, who was simply masterful, and still hardly needs to sit. He looks good for a few more Bruckner cycles. (I do however wonder why he needs scores, but he likes the support of an occasional glance.)

This splendid concert will go into my end-of-year highlights without any shadow of a doubt.

John Rhodes

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