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