Lucerne sees the final farewell from Bernard Haitink after 65 extraordinary years of conducting

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival [7] – Beethoven, Bruckner: Emanuel Ax (piano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum (KKL) Luzern, Lucerne, 5.9.2019. (JR)

Bernard Haitink conducts the VPO (c) Lucerne Festival/Priska Ketterer

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 Op.58

Bruckner – Symphony No.7   WAB 107

And then it was, sadly, time for the final curtain after 65 years. In 1954 Haitink, at the age of 25, conducted an orchestra in public for the first time. This was the Netherlands Radio Union Orchestra (now Netherlands Radio Philharmonic) and it was this same orchestra – not the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – that he chose to conduct in Amsterdam some weeks ago. No-one in the music world really expected Haitink’s ‘sabbatical’, which he announced early this year, to be a serious proposition and he himself finally seems to have given in to pressure from those nearest and dearest around him (and probably his doctors) to lay down his baton once and for all.

There is a time for all elderly maestros to do this, and many (no names but we – and they – know who they are) should consider doing this earlier than they do, before their physical powers fail them, even if their mental acuity is more or less intact. It was apt, therefore, that his final concert anywhere should be in Lucerne, at the Summer Festival where Haitink has given so many extraordinarily fine concerts, so many evenings to remember (as this one), and that it should contain two major works by Beethoven and Bruckner, two composers very dear to his heart.

Haitink has also had a special affection for the city of Lucerne and had a home here for many years, not far from Richard Wagner’s home at Tribschen. Many other musical luminaries have graced or continue to grace (as Herbert Blomstedt does) the shores of Lake Lucerne.

Haitink’s final concert, after performing almost identical programmes in Salzburg, Amsterdam and at the Proms, was always going to be as much a top quality musical event as an emotional one.

Haitink was the conductor who, more than any other, introduced me to the works of three composers whom I now admire the most, Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich. I was fortunate to have sung in performances of Mahler’s Third and Eighth as a treble, but as a student wanted to know more and acquired all the Mahler symphonies in those beautiful boxed sets with art deco covers from Philips; Haitink and the Concertgebouw were champions of the composer. While my fellow students were idolizing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, I was drowning them out in my student hall of residence, quite literally, with Mahler’s Sixth. Later, all the Bruckner and Shostakovich symphonies, yet again Haitink. In the late 1970s and forever afterwards, I would not miss a Haitink concert at the Festival Hall and I was never disappointed, often enthralled. I am not a Mozartian, but Haitink’s Wagner also always more than met the mark.

I had better talk about the concert. Haitink’s BBC Prom concert with the same programme has been more than ably and fully reviewed by my colleague Jim Pritchard (review click here).

Let’s start with the orchestra. A few days ago I ventured to suggest that the Berlin Philharmonic were currently in a class of their own, but on this showing the Vienna gave them a real run for their money. The strings especially are, and have always been, an exceptionally sinewy and lush group; the savage double-basses and luxuriant celli were hugely impressive. I believe the Vienna Philharmonic purchase instruments for their players or have them ‘in stock’, which might explain the homogeneous sound they are able to create. Some of the brass instruments are not up-to-date, which could also explain some of the unfortunate horn smudges. The orchestra also provides replacement violins, hanging on the second desks, in case of a broken string.

Originally, Haitink’s dear friend Murray Perahia was to have been his companion for this last concert, but Perahia was indisposed, so in stepped Emanuel Ax, another dear friend, a mere stripling at 70, to deputise, more than ably of course. The concerto was given a conservative, straight performance; flawless, delicate fingerwork, sufficient nuance, yet all a mite soporific. The KKL had turned on the heating (autumn has arrived here) and at least one orchestra member was mopping his brow. Cool temperatures in the auditorium aid concentration. I was much more taken by Ax’s encore, a delightful elegiac Schubert Impromptu.

Haitink’s final choice of work was telling: he possibly toyed with the mighty Eighth, but has probably conducted the Seventh even more often, and it was a neat fit into the schedules of the major music festivals this summer. There is an air of melancholy throughout the work, which was fitting for Haitink’s farewell. Bruckner wrote the Adagio with the recent news of Wagner’s death in mind; Bruckner revered Wagner, as I suspect Haitink does too.

Needless to say, the Bruckner symphony was played immaculately, and Haitink gave us his interpretation, which has hardly changed over many years. He is a master of the long line, the steady pulse (a little slower than perhaps when he was younger). He had to sit for longer periods than before, but the orchestra knew (after many performances) exactly what he wanted. When Haitink conducts, he seems to become younger, the years seem to fall away – at the end though, he needed a walking stick and the help of a concertmaster to negotiate dismounting the podium.

At the very end, I – and many others, I suspect – had a tear in the eye. We knew we would (probably) never see Haitink conduct again. For some time I had feared this goodbye was imminent but now it was clear there was really no turning back; unless, as Emanuel Ax has conjectured, someone fifty years younger becomes suddenly indisposed and he is asked to step in at short notice.

Haitink came out alone, after the orchestra had left the stage, to a lengthy standing ovation. He looked exhausted, as well he might after a long demanding concert, waved meekly, as if to say, ‘thank you, but I really don’t know what this fuss is all about’. Haitink does not seek the limelight, or even attention, so no speeches. He left us with the dignity and humanity he has always shown his players and the public. There had been no sentimentality in the performance and none afterwards. He was there, as ever, for the music.

Haitink always downplayed his musical and interpretative gifts and felt guilty that his Jewish classmates in conducting class (many of whom he considered better musicians than he) were shipped off, never to be seen again, leaving him free to pursue his career in Holland. That humility endeared me to the man. Ultimately, however it will be Haitink’s massive musical legacy, his many fine recordings, which keep him in our memory, and I am sure all we classical music-lovers wish him a truly happy and healthy retirement.

John Rhodes

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