Haitink’s Reading of Bruckner’s Ninth Improves as it Unfolds

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Bruckner: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 1.6.2017. (AS)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor Op. 37
Bruckner – Symphony No.9 in D minor

In the case of performances by Mitsuko Uchida you don’t expect virtuoso thrills, and nor was there anything of the sort in her reading of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Though her technique is in fact superlative it is always put at the service of a probing intellectual mind and a search for inner truths within the music she plays. Her entry after a strong and serious account of the opening orchestral statement was a shade deliberate, but still nicely shaped. As the musical argument developed its classical elements were emphasised in a thoughtful, beautiful but still quite expressive fashion. Uchida brought a lovely, pearly tone quality to the cadenza, and overall it was a quietly satisfying account of the first movement.

After this is was rather dismaying to hear Uchida’s intensely ruminative, desperately slow approach to the central Largo movement. It seemed sometimes that the pianist’s internal vision of the music was so vivid that she hardly dared to spoil it by the physical act of depressing the piano keys and creating actual sounds. There was no doubting her utter sincerity of approach, but it was not a reading that one would wish to hear more than on this single occasion.

The finale, by contrast, was delivered in a strong, straightforward fashion, the basic tempo slightly on the slow side, so that the somewhat martial episodes in the orchestral part emerged with rather more emphasis than usual. Not a performance for every day, then, but it was interesting as one caught on the wing. Though Uchida received an ovation for her performance she resisted, thankfully, the temptation to play a solo encore – a practice that seems to be becoming more and more prevalent after concerto performances.

Haitink used the respected Nowak edition of 1951 in his performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. It’s not long ago that we heard Daniel Harding conduct the LSO in this work with the addition of one of the conjecturally concocted finales put together by one or other latter-day completists. None of these attempted realisations of Bruckner’s alleged intentions have any merit, and it was good that Haitink performed just the three completed movements that form such a satisfying entity on their own.

At once the magnificent playing of the LSO was to be admired, as were Haitink’s unerringly correct choice of tempo and management of phrase, and his customarily perfect baton technique. But something seemed to be missing. Where was the sense of majesty and mystery in the music? The first movement was immaculately delivered, but there was little depth of expression. Even the wondrous ending, where climaxes should pile on climaxes to the point where the music seems to be on the point of bursting – was a comparatively tame experience.

In the Scherzo Haitink chose a slowish but very effective tempo, the music hammered home impressively, and the contrasting trio sections were brought off in a very adroit, skilfully balanced manner.

At the beginning of the long concluding Adagio the performance suddenly started to acquire an extra dimension of communication. There was real passion in the playing now, especially in the long arching string passages, and Haitink’s conducting was masterly, marrying warmth of expression with a lofty, inspired vision of the movement’s shape and structure. This was now exceptional music-making, and as the work approached its quiet ending the intensity of utterance was very moving.

Was my reaction to the varying quality of the performance valid, I wondered? Had my responses merely become quickened for some strange reason as the work progressed? Normally I don’t discuss performances with my guest of the evening, but I felt I had to on this occasion and I was relieved to find that his reaction was pretty well the same as my own.

Alan Sanders

1 thought on “Haitink’s Reading of Bruckner’s Ninth Improves as it Unfolds”

  1. Thanks Alan – interesting to read your thoughts on the Bruckner 9. I felt the same way, which was also a surprise to me, especially because I also made it to the first night of the Bruckner 9 at the Barbican (paired with the Te Deum) and thought it was extraordinary from first note to last silence. The second performance (actually, the third I believe, as they performed in Paris in-between their London dates) was compelling, but somehow less extraordinary.


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