Bernard Haitink’s final UK concert was always going to be a big event. Outside the Albert Hall, the day began with a queue for arena tickets forming before most people had eaten breakfast. It ended inside with the audience on its feet, the arena full of glowing smartphone screens as people took the pictures that would prove they had been there. The performance lived up to all of that: here was evidence that some conductors’ powers don’t diminish with age.
Haitink, who celebrated his 90th birthday in the spring, had chosen to bow out in front of the Vienna Philharmonic with Beethoven and Bruckner: this short concert series taking in the major European festivals, ending in Lucerne on Friday, was billed as a farewell tour. With Murray Perahia ill, the piano soloist in Beethoven’s Concerto No 4 was Emanuel Ax, ideally teamed with Haitink and the orchestra in an ensemble interpretation that was elegant and often deceptively gentle, any gestures at aggression quickly tempered, but with genuine darkness at its heart. The piano trills that led the slow movement towards its close were fearsome, the music around them pregnant with possibility. Ax’s encore, Schubert’s Impromptu Op 142, No 2, was perfectly judged for the occasion – simple, reflective and meaningful, without upstaging what had gone before.
For Haitink, though, the last word had to be from Bruckner. The Symphony No 7 was where we got to luxuriate in the sound he drew from the Vienna Phil, with its velvety strings and its perfectly blended brass section. The ensemble breathed together each time the opening melody bloomed, and sounded almost like an organ during the climactic second-movement passage when Bruckner gave us just a glimpse of the size of the work we were listening to. Haitink’s pacing was masterful, and the special yet contained sound at that moment was characteristic of it. It’s a cliche to talk of Bruckner’s vast symphonies as cathedrals in sound: it suggests you can see the whole edifice from the start, which is a forbidding and limiting way to think about music that is so beautiful in the moment. Perhaps it would be better to think of a journey on a dark underground river, with the conductor holding the lantern: you can see each rock formation as you pass, but only towards the end does someone turn on a light and make you realise you have been passing through every inch of a vast and spectacular cavern.
Haitink, as ever, emphasised beauty over structure, yet did not allow the music’s sense of shape to slacken for a moment. One episode flowed into the next, Bruckner’s melodies coming back again and again, inevitably yet never quite predictably, turning themselves upside-down and back to front. Standing behind a music stand that held a score he didn’t even bother to open, or seated on a high stool, Haitink retained his old, almost birdlike poise and precision of movement, and kept his authority even when the orchestra weren’t playing: a genial flick of the hand at the start told the audience to stop cheering and let him get on with it; another broke the thick silence that followed the symphony’s final note.
According to his programme biography, Haitink is not retiring, merely taking a sabbatical. He’ll always be welcome back.