CD Number: Various (See Above)
Of late, Bernard Haitink's reputation seems to have developed a bad case of transatlantic rift. In Europe, Great Britain especially, Haitink is regarded as a great conductor, perhaps the greatest since the passing of Karajan; and he can pick and choose from among the most desirable conducting assignments. In these United States, however, he is, to quote Willy Loman, "liked, but not well-liked," respected but not beloved. Next season he will not be appearing on these shores at all, not even in Boston where he was a regular guest.
Certainly Haitink deserves the respect. When he succeeded the suddenly departed Eduard Van Beinum as music director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961, he was only 31 years old and largely untested. Few could have predicted that his tenure would last twenty-seven years, or that he would prove to be such a resourceful custodian of both the orchestra's dark-hued sound and its core repertory (Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner). Like Van Beinum before him, Haitink could play the instrument, but he had his own ideas about how it should sound, favoring a finely-judged balance between French transparency and Germanic warmth. Certainly Haitink never violated Richard Strauss' most important rule for conductors: "Never, under any circumstances, look at the brass--it only encourages them!"
As a very young man, Haitink had admired Furtwangler, but as he matured, his predilections became ever more classical, "objective." Sometimes, in heated Romantic or modern repertory, this restraint can pay surprisingly rich dividends (as in the Scheherazade and The Rite of Spring he recorded with the London Philharmonic); but sometimes too, his interpretations lack a personal stamp. I'm sure Haitink would claim that he is just letting the music speak for itself, but often I sense a reticence in his work--an unwillingness to engage the score on an emotional level, to seize on its dramatic possibilities. Though he can indeed deliver inspirational performances every so often -- his ecstatic digital Beethoven Ninth with the Concertgebouw comes to mind -- overall his interpretations have been reliable, delicately shaded, and honest. It is consistently good, but rarely "great."
I guess the first thing to say about these new Brahms Symphonies, no doubt the first installments of a complete "live" cycle with the LSO, is that they are, by and large, far more involving and successful than the limp-as-a-noodle recordings he made with the Boston Symphony in the 1970's. The First is, in fact, a more dramatic and urgent account than his old Concertgebouw recording, timing out faster in each movement. Still, I'm afraid I found this performance curiously uneven as a whole. The un poco sostenuto introduction to the first movement is patiently and expressively shaped; but as soon as we launch into the allegro, Haitink drives the music too deliberately, pretty much flattening out the drama that was, I've always assumed, the point of it all. Much the same thing happens in the fourth movement: the adagio is appropriately suspenseful and mysterious, building to a stirring, noble chorale, but Brahms' most memorable tune is too tightly corseted, the allegro that follows it too relentless and uninflected. Beneath the symmetrical, almost Palladian facade of this symphony, there is something dark and convulsive struggling for release. But in the coda, Haitink is still holding on when he should be letting it all go. The second movement, though delicately phrased, also moves at too martial a pace. I have never heard a conductor so successfully resist the music's sensual and emotional properties.
In the end, this is a good, but certainly not an especially memorable First. It yields not only to the greatest interpretations of this work (among which I would number any version conducted by Furtwangler, Walter in mono with the New York Philharmonic or in stereo with the Columbia Symphony, and Klemperer with the Philharmonia), but also to other versions that are similar in approach (Weingatrner/LSO, Szell/Cleveland, Steinberg/Pittsburgh). If you do happen to be looking for a Brahms First by Haitink, I'd heartily recommend his performance with the Concertgebouw (and just recently reissued by Phillips on their Universal Classics budget line. This is not just the highlight of that early Brahms cycle, but one of the highlights of Haitink's entire career. It has a breadth, a tonal and emotional warmth that the current version lacks, and the playing of the Concertgebouw is thrilling from first to last. As for the Tragic Overture, if you're looking for a mellow, nondescript version of the work, Haitink is your man.
Haitink's Brahms Second is something else again, and one of the more deeply personal performances I've ever heard from him. In The Gramophone, Richard Osborne called it a "troubling" Brahms Second; and though I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, this is definitely not a version in which "pastoral beauty progresses to heroic brilliance." For Haitink the Second seems to be a stark, brooding, existential work. And if this sounds extreme, we should remember that Brahms himself described the symphony as "melancholic." As a rule, most orchestras don't take to performing familiar works in unfamiliar ways. So it surely says something about Haitink's authority that he persuades the LSO to perform with such conviction and temperament. This still might not be your cup of tea, but it's so deftly crafted, so all of a piece, and so deeply felt that it deserves to be heard by anyone willing to consider an alternative approach to the score. Comparisons seem quite beside the point here.
Haitink has recorded the Double Concerto before: in 1970, with the Concertgebouw and Henryk Szeryng and Janos Starker as soloists. That version was a courtly, low-voltage affair, instantly disposable. This new performance, however, is much more exciting, largely due to violinist Gordan Nikolitch and cellist Tim Hugh, who are both principals of their respective sections. It's easy to understand why record companies continue to pair big-name instrumentalists in this concerto, but the example of Nikolitch and Hugh suggests that this difficult music can be even better served by two musicians who know each other's characteristic sound and gestures intimately and from long experience of playing together. The dialogue between the volatile Nikolitch and the more ruminative Hugh is alternately fierce and deeply affectionate, and Haitink provides supple and alert accompaniment. Indeed, one senses the LSO going all out for two of their own. I'm certainly happy to finally add a "modern" version of this piece to my shelf of favorites, the most recent of which (Oistrach and Fournier with Galliera/Philharmonia) is over thirty years old.
As for the sound, I've probably been spoiled by Tony Faulkner, whose engineering for several earlier LSO Live productions was uniformly superb. Working here with engineer Jonathan Stokes, producer James Mallinson moves us closer up for both of these performances, from the first balcony to the front of the orchestra. Though sometimes in tutti passages I find an unpleasant edge at the top; there is also a sense of immediacy and, especially in the Second, an appealing warmth. If the goal is to let us hear just how well the orchestra is playing, then the sound works here, even if it isn't always to my taste.
Unless you're a Haitink completist, you can safely pass on the First, but again I would recommend the Second, if only for the performance of the Double Concerto -- though I'm guessing you'll also find the performance of the symphony compelling. I am now cautiously looking forward to the Third and Fourth Symphonies. The current releases suggest that the 75-year-old Haitink may be going through important changes. Who knows? After all this time, he may finally be ready to make himself known.
Brahms Second/Double Concerto