Classical: Hasten not too slowly

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The Independent Culture
Haitink conducts the LSO

Barbican, London

According to Roger Norrington, "there are no slow movements in Haydn". Listen to Norrington himself conducting one of the symphonies and you can hear what he means. Whatever the apparent speed, everything dances. Judging from Sunday's performance of Symphony No 86, Bernard Haitink takes the rather more old-fashioned view that a "slow" movement is a slow movement - that Largo doesn't just mean a "broad" pulse; it means put your feet up, breathe deeply, reflect on serious things.

Taken too slowly, the forced earnestness of a Haydn "slow" movement begins to sound faintly comical, as in a sermon by Austen's Mr Collins. Under Haitink, the Largo of No 86 certainly wasn't light on its feet, but, given such superbly controlled phrasing and rhythmic detail, it flowed, like a broad, slow river. The finale was the perfect antidote: lively, witty, uplifting. The wit may be more suave and regal than in Norrington's earthy performances. But then, Haitink is adept at showing the serious side of the humour, as in the first movement, where apparently "jokey" harmonic twists and puns can be momentarily disturbing.

Ask most music-lovers for a brief summary of Bruckner's style and the word "slow" will surely figure somewhere, along with "architectural" and/or "cathedral-like". Fine, except that there has been a disturbing tendency lately for conductors to emphasise the monumental at the expense of the human - something that the great Brucknerians, from Furtwangler to Gunter Wand, never did. Rattle's new recording of the Seventh is one of the most worrying examples of this trend.

It would be hard to think of a better antidote to Rattle's Seventh than Haitink's. Haitink doesn't hurry the music; the long phrases are given time to breathe, and, when Bruckner stops to enjoy the view, Haitink stops with him. And yet, in the background, there is a sense that the music - to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins - "rides time like riding a river". With the grand scale, came a sense of intimacy - in the deeply soulful first theme of the Adagio, or in its lighter, Schubertian counterpart, or in the cellos' nobly aspiring phrases at the heart of the first movement.

Then, in the last two movements - miracle of miracles - Haitink rediscovered the humour in the music. Early critics both praised and condemned the Scherzo for its irreverence (Bruckner wrote the words "Mocking bird" over one little woodwind figure), while in places the finale comes to resemble a gargantuan Haydn - with previously solemn Wagner tubas exchanging mock- churchy cadences or cavorting like tipsy hippos. Even here, though, there was still plenty of affection in the solo playing and warmth in the orchestral sound. The end was just glorious - a real symphonic apotheosis. One slightly worrying question: apart from the increasingly frail Wand, how many of today's conductors even approach Haitink in his understanding of this music? None that I can think of.

Stephen Johnson