Eight or nine bars into Bernard Haitink's performance of the Overture to Fidelio, I realised that recognising the historical significance of his Beethoven Cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra (the LSO's first for more than 20 years) was not going to be enough to make me enjoy listening to it. Respecting a conductor is not at all the same thing as being excited by a conductor and, from that point on, I did what many bored but loving husbands and wives must do in the marital bed, and imagined I was having the same experience with a quite different partner.
Bland Beethoven is never exactly bad. The music is dynamic enough to provide its own electricity. But the combination of Haitink's inflexible tempi and the unruffled technical perfection of the orchestra made me terribly aware of missing that sense of awe and revelation and argument that the very best Beethoven performances produce. For much of this concert, my mental iPod was set to Mackerras's Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonia, and Franz Bruggen's Eroica with the Orchestra of the 18th century: two performances that made me want to laugh and cry, which is, I think, what Beethoven should do.
Only in the final movement of Haitink's Fifth did I feel anything approaching that transport, and that was largely due to the consistently interrogative playing of the viola section and the expressive performance of the principal double-bassist, who put more purpose and shape into each repeated note than Haitink did.
The Eighth Symphony, already overshadowed by those either side of it, loses most from being played on modern instruments. The buzzing dissonances of the off-beat entries in the first movement have more edge and vitality when the individual sections of the orchestra sound less like each other, and I missed the high-risk rasp of natural horns, the pithy attack of a wooden flute, and the twang of gut strings in debate. The red-carpet, air-brushed glamour of the LSO's matchless blend ill-suits this wrinkled, warty symphony: a work that needs brain, brawn and sweat, passionate discourse between the sections, and a certain roughness of expression. Had Haitink been working with a less polished orchestra, or had the LSO been working with a more unpredictable conductor, I suspect the result would have been more exciting.
Christopher Maltman's Wigmore Hall recital of Schumann, Loewe and Wolf songs with Graham Johnson also had an air of historical significance. Though Johnson's position as the doyen of lieder programming may never be challenged - the juxtapositions in this recital were breathtaking - his playing is increasingly smudged and splashy, especially in Wolf's blistering accompaniments.
Whether Maltman (inset) would have sung with quite so much narrative and expressive confidence without his ageing accompanist is, however, another question. From the infinite stillness of Loewe's Beethovenian Lynceus der Thürmer, auf Fausts Sternwarte singend to the bubbling aggression of Schumann's Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch im Divan II, his performance was outstanding: compellingly characterised, emotionally intrepid, richly coloured and eloquently nuanced.Reuse content