Haitink and the BSO

by Sedgwick Clark

Bernard Haitink led the Boston Symphony this week in a pair of concerts at Carnegie Hall. He made his debut with the BSO in 1971 and became its principal guest conductor in 1995 and conductor emeritus in 2004. This is his 60th season as a conductor. He was principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony from 2006-10, chief conductor of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw for 27 years and now its conductor laureate, and next month he leads the Berlin Philharmonic to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his debut with that ensemble. He turns 85 in three weeks.

There was a time when Americans could experience his vital, direct music-making mainly on records, where—in the cold environs of an empty hall—his artistry didn’t always flower. “How can I conduct Mahler at 10 in the morning?” he asked rhetorically when we were talking more than 40 years ago about making recordings. He wasn’t performing any Mahler with the BSO this time around, but he will lead the New York Philharmonic in the Third Symphony on May 15, 16, and 17. Chances are, that will be a concert you won’t want to miss.

Tuesday’s concert was one of those. American composer Steven Stucky describes his nine-minute Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Purcell) as mostly “straightforward orchestration,” but it was obviously more than that and very affecting for it. Haitink’s graceful, buoyant collaboration with Murray Perahia in Schumann’s Piano Concerto was the evening’s treat. For years it has been subjected to interminable, “sensitive” interpretations, but this performance restored my faith in Schumann; I haven’t heard its like since the 1948 EMI recording with Dinu Lipatti, Herbert von Karajan, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, which followed, unfolded in one unbroken line, with Haitink determined to avoid the luftpausen, ritards, and undue emphases of others less trusting of the composer’s score. What a pleasure, for instance, that the flute variation in the final movement moved along purposefully rather than bogging down in wrong-headed expressiveness.

During Charles Munch’s tenure as music director (1949-1962), the Bostonians gained a reputation as an orchestra with a French accent, but one wonders whether that reputation still holds. Perhaps Charles Dutoit could resurrect Munch’s colorful heritage in French orchestral works, but Haitink conjures distinctly less colorful timbres. Which is not to say that his understated performances in Wednesday’s all-Ravel program were less than enjoyable. Alborada del gracioso could have used more rhythmic snap and color, but the diaphanous orchestral shimmer in the song cycle Shéhérazade was superbly judged, perfectly balanced with Susan Graham’s subtly sensuous singing.

After intermission, Haitink led a virtually flawless, if not terribly exciting, performance of the complete Daphnis et Chloé. Perhaps he felt that ballet tempos were most suitable for a performance of the complete score—as I suspect did Pierre Monteux, the work’s first conductor, when he recorded the work in 1959 for Decca. At any rate, the sections marked Vif (“lively”) and the concluding dance (Animé) lack energy in both conductors’ renditions. Certainly neither approaches the two orgiastic renditions by Munch (1955 and 1961) on RCA.

The playing in both concerts was everything one could wish, and the wordless singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Daphnis moreso.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

2/14 Metropolitan Opera. Borodin: Prince Igor. Gianandrea Noseda, cond. Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna), Anita Rachvelishvili (Konchakovna), Sergey Semishkur (Vladimir Igorevich), Ildar Abdrazakov (Prince Igor Svyatoslavich), Mikhail Petrenko (Prince Galitsky), Stefan Kocán (Khan Konchak).

2/15 Carnegie Hall. St. Petersburg Philharmonic/Yuri Temirkanov; Julia Fischer, violin. Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2. Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2.

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