The week in classical: Proms 60 & 59 review – Haitink bows out in style

Royal Albert Hall, London
With a minimum of fuss, to momentous effect, Bernard Haitink conducted his final UK concert taking risks to the last

He arrived with Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, in 1966, and left with that same majestic work, a sustained blaze of brass fanfares, poetry and angst, 53 years later. Bernard Haitink’s final Prom, and his last UK concert, attracted record queues and desperate jostling for tickets. As performance, and as momentous occasion, it exceeded expectation. That long-ago debut Prom – in the midst of the swinging 60s – triggered a new interest in the Austrian composer, always central to Haitink’s musical preoccupations. He calls Bruckner’s music “a mountain… a steady ascent”. Now 90, Haitink has climbed this particular peak all his professional life. The prospect of never again having this quiet, modest Dutchman on the podium leaves us bereft.

His manner may be restrained – incisive baton beat with his right hand, small indications of expression with his left – but his music-making has rare freedom, transparency and amplitude. Minimal signals achieve maximum effect. He demonstrated that at the start on Tuesday, by making a simple, dampening gesture to the excited audience, cheering wildly before a note had been played. The silence was instant. For so many present, this musician’s performances will have been at the heart of their listening lives: aside from the huge catalogue of recordings, as chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam; music director of Glyndebourne, and the Royal Opera House; principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden. He conducted one of the first Proms I attended while still at school. A pivotal event, it changed my comprehension of music for ever.

This UK farewell concert, which Haitink had already conducted in Salzburg, and was due to repeat, finally, in Lucerne on Friday, was with the Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble he knows well, and of which he is an honorary member. It opened with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Emanuel Ax as soloist. Supple and subtle, Ax’s playing in some ways mirrors the Viennese sound, effort scarcely visible, drama imaginatively blended and shaped, never exaggerated. The first-movement cadenza, almost a sonata in itself, captured a sense of improvisation, with the VPO accompanying like chamber musicians.

Emanuel Ax performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink at Prom 60
Emanuel Ax performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Bernard Haitink at Prom 60. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

For the Vienna Philharmonic, above all other orchestras, tradition and collective memory are of the essence. Bruckner, who lived much of his life in Vienna and died there, is core repertoire. The glowing, integrated string timbre, the drier oboe sound and the mellow radiance of the Vienna horns – distinguished by their unique double-cylinder valve (the technical difference from a standard French horn is obscure to a non-brass player, but you hear it) – bring a particular clarity and gleam to Bruckner. Certain moments stood out: the oboe and clarinet theme early on, the optional cymbals and triangle at the climax of the Adagio, purposeful rather than hysterical; the primal energy of the Scherzo and that abrupt, perfectly placed conclusion to the finale. Yet Haitink’s singular gift is to balance detail, contour, entity. He has always said he prefers to use a score, since anyone is capable of mistakes. Here, he kept the score, closed, on the stand in front of him, happy to take one more risk. At the end, with the leader of the Vienna Philharmonic guiding him gently by the arm, this revered and loved conductor took three bows, then slowly left the platform a last time.

Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, a mix of humour, tragedy and happy ending, isn’t to all tastes. John Eliot Gardiner, with his period-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir, couldn’t be finer advocates. A semi-staging at the Proms, in the 150th anniversary year of the composer’s death, brought Gardiner’s five-year Berlioz cycle to an end. Self-identifying with the racy, individualistic, misunderstood Florentine goldsmith of the title, for whom he wrote one of the most difficult of all tenor roles, Berlioz packed glorious choruses, arias and ensembles into this protracted work so you almost forgive its bagginess.

The American tenor Michael Spyres, generously committed as Cellini, and an exceptional Berlioz singer, had vocal problems as the evening progressed. Other singers suffered at the hands of the staging, their voices not always audible above the orchestra (no doubt affected by where you sat, and not likely to have been a problem for Radio 3 listeners). Lower voices came across best, especially Ashley Riches (Bernardino) and Tareq Nazmi (Pope Clement VII). The Monteverdi Choir was on top form. Can I tentatively suggest we may have had it with dance-round-your-handbag choir-bopping? That said, in all other respects choir and orchestra were unsurpassed.

Benvenuto Cellini at the Proms.
Benvenuto Cellini at the Proms. Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

Star ratings (out of five)
Vienna Philharmonic/Haitink
Benvenuto Cellini ★★★★

• Both Proms can be heard on BBC Sounds. The Proms continue until 14 September


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in classical: Proms 32, 34 & 35; Rinaldo review – happy returns all round
Proms veterans Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim work their magic once more

Fiona Maddocks

17, Aug, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Prom 60: Vienna Phil/Ax/Haitink review – a beautiful, masterful farewell
Bernard Haitink chose Beethoven and Bruckner for his final UK concert. His flowing and authoritative interpretation of the latter’s 7th symphony foregrounded the music’s beauty but not at the expense of structure

Erica Jeal

04, Sep, 2019 @10:42 AM

Article image
The week in classical: BBC Proms 13, 15 & 17; Cadogan Hall Prom 2; Nabucco; War and Peace – review
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra give a masterclass in firepower and finesse

Fiona Maddocks

03, Aug, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Proms 1 & 7; L’arlesiana; Il segreto di Susanna/Iolanta; Die Zauberflöte – review
The 125th BBC Proms get off to a flying start, Opera Holland Park is on a roll, and the Queen of the Night gets a new day job

Stephen Pritchard

27, Jul, 2019 @10:59 AM

Article image
Proms 31, 32 & 33 review – a fiendishly fine Faust
Berlioz’s strange, exquisite work soared in a thrilling concert performance that left everything to the imagination

Fiona Maddocks

12, Aug, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
A missed opportunity to make the BBC Proms a national event
The Proms should get out of London more, though its series at Cadogan Hall highlighting overlooked female composers is to be applauded

Richard Brooks

14, Jul, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Kátya Kabanová; Haitink at 90 – review
Birmingham Opera Company excels with an unforgettable Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. At Scottish Opera, a great season for Kátya Kabanová continues

Fiona Maddocks

16, Mar, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
The week in classical: BBC Proms week one; Ariadne auf Naxos – review
Record viewing and listening figures, plus keyboard wizardry from Paul Lewis, Benjamin Grosvenor and Stephen Hough, kicked off another year at the Proms. Elsewhere, Strauss’s Cretan romcom laid bare

Fiona Maddocks

22, Jul, 2023 @11:30 AM

Prom 75: VPO/Haitink – review
Bernard Haitink returns to Strauss's Alpine Symphony and makes it slower and more monumental, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

09, Sep, 2012 @4:00 PM

Article image
The week in classical: BBC Proms 2020 and more – review
A diet of highlights from the Proms archive should make us value this great festival more than ever. Elsewhere, enterprising live music-making continues

Fiona Maddocks

26, Jul, 2020 @8:00 AM