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Haitink Closes in Style

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(Dominick Reuter photo)

From our far-flung correspondent.

Celebrating his 90th birthday this past spring, Bernard Haitink announced that this summer would mark the final concerts of his 65-year career as one of the worlds most celebrated conductors. This past Friday, Haitink, the Wiener Philharmoniker, and pianist Emmanuel Ax began a “farewell tour,” with the closing concerts at the 99th Salzburger Festspiele; performances at the BBC Proms in London and in Lucerne will follow. Offering Beethoven’s bucolic Fourth Piano Concerto and Bruckner’s monumental Seventh Symphony, Haitink began the closing chapter of his career in style, among some of the finest musicians and music lovers.

An intent and expectant Trachten- and Dirndl-clothed audience had filled the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg as Emmanuel Ax crossed the stage, followed shortly thereafter by Haitink wielding a cane; strong ovations ensued, especially for Haitink (who had just been named an honorary member of the Wiener Philharmoniker).

Wrong notes hardly seemed to faze listeners, as Ax rolled the famous opening oratory-like chords from the Beethoven concerto. Called to stand in for Murray Perahia on short-notice, Ax recovered himself in a performance that veered between perfunctory and poetic. Haitink and the Viennese supplemented energetic tutti moments with sublimely lyrical instrumental solos (especially in the woodwinds). One can always recognize a suave and blended sound from this ensemble’s strings, sonorous affect from the oboe and woodwinds, and rounded tones from the brass. In the chilling development of the first movement, Allegro moderato, each harmonic episode possessed an internal fire. Haitink controlled the logarithmic arrival that built into the recapitulation with amazingly controlled tension, dynamics, and agogic time-taking. The pair of horns were mighty in this exalted return. Ax interpreted Beethoven’s cadenza with somewhat bland pleasantness, aside from a shocking harmonic twist that really made sense.

Fits of coughing stopped as the stark dotted-rhythms from unison strings opened the Andante con moto, a uniquely narrative second movement which dialogues between Orpheus and the Furies at the gates of Hades. Ax pleaded with sensitive affect as Orpheus. Despite a cell phone that went off mid-movement (a shocker for this highly disciplined crowd), we heard some of the most tender and poetic expression of the whole concerto.

Ax took the third movement, Rondo: Vivace — Presto, at a relatively slow and safe tempo. Minor note inaccuracies hampered the internal energy of the Rondo, not helped by the fact that arpeggiations sounded like pianistic études. But, the slow tempo did give space for ample expression, especially in cello solos and harmonic pivots. The orchestra’s brisk final coda supplied missing energy. The audience complied heartily, with collegial, sweet interchanges between Haitink, Ax, and the concertmaster in response. Ax acknowledged the audience’s appreciation with a dreamy, beautifully played encore: “Des Abends,” from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12.

After a needed pause in preparation for mountain climbing, the concert resumed, as the tremolos of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony led to the entrance of the famous opening melody of the first movement, Allegro moderato. If Haitink did not summon the same type of polyphonic clarity and inevitability found in Sergiu Celibidache’s cosmic interpretations of Bruckner, he nevertheless  achieved something spectacular in the stretto over a bass section dominant-pedal leading up to the main body of the ruhig a tempo. Harmonic tension was palpable. As the movement progressed, chords in the trombone choir held extremely poor intonation. Cello and viola section moments were gorgeous, though they could not sway our attention from a second cell phone disturbance. Even in one of classical music’s most venerated Valhallas, modernity has a way of seeping in through the cracks. More poor intonation came from the trumpet section during an urgent entrance of the opening theme in forte, though well-covered by the loud dynamic. The movement closed with extreme power as the last entrance of the opening theme was played the most passionately yet, as timpani in the foreground led the crescendo. Haitink placed the transition to the coda masterfully, giving the conclusion a fitting Wagnerian heft.

The famous second movement, Adagio: Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam, written in anticipation of Wagner’s death, sounded matter-of-fact. I yearned for more bereavement. The orchestra eventually got more comfortable with the mood, sinking into the sonic world in the second, nostalgic theme.  The movement erred on the side of repetitiveness, though not without beauty of sound or phrasing. Bruckner’s composition, built on increasing waves of harmonic tension, requires differentiation and an interpretative touch. This said, we experience a terrifically heroic major-mode climax.

Haitink delivered two distinct scenes in movement three, Scherzo and Trio―the scherzo: something mythological, the trio something pastoral. Haitink shone in this movement; his economical gestures illuminated the structure and textures.

Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht schnell, with its characteristic theme and Schubert-like cadences, worked up a great deal of emotion, as harmonic episodes and special strettos with suspended sequences brought out intense musical drama. It was in these moments that Haitink, who had been alternating between sitting on a stool and standing, would rise up for extra emphasis. His noble figure excited a lot of energy from the orchestra, always at the right moments. Gesangsvoll passages contrasted with the immense power of the tuttis . . . What a sound! In spite of more clams from the exposed trumpets playing forte in the final orchestral stretto, the music felt conclusive; the bass players allowed their strings to resonate for a few seconds on the final forte chord. A deep, thankful silence lingered many seconds before the well-earned ovation. Haitink took several bows before recognizing the timpani and brass sections.

Bernard Haitink concludes his career in the footsteps of Herbert von Karajan, who also gave his final concert with the Wiener Philharmoniker, leading the same Bruckner Symphony.

Cellist, conductor, organizer, commentator, and musical facilitator, Santa Barbara native Nicolas Sterner is the Collaborative Director and Conductor of the Chromos Collaborative Orchestra.

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