LSO / Haitink, Barbican Hall, London
Tuesday 27 May 2003
Brahms is back. For a century he seemed as immovable a concert fixture as Beethoven, and then in the last two decades the sightings thinned out. With Daniel Barenboim's inspirational cycle in January, and the LSO's ongoing performances from Bernard Haitink and André Previn, the chance has arrived to hear this long-familiar music fresh. The experience so far has been surprising.
There always were two ways with Brahms, personified by the conductors Richter and von Bulow: one all about tradition, steady accumulation and patient lyrical strength, the other dramatic, fiery and restless. Here is the contrast again, as Haitink and Barenboim took approaches as opposite as contemporary music-making can get. Barenboim and his Berlin orchestra had a mixed press; some found them a revelation, while others didn't appreciate their roots in German musical history. For the latter,Haitink will have been comforting.
A master of subtle pacing and balance, and expressive power without extreme force, Haitink was at his best handling the romantic ebb and flow of Symphony No 1 in the second of his two programmes. Polished playing and finely judged phrasing made everything fall into place: the portentous introduction, the regaining of momentum after major turned back to minor, the sudden speedings and mysterious interventions at the start of the finale, all beautifully presented in themselves, were at the same time part of a bigger picture whose dimensions were always clear.
The earlier concert had been a less happy experience. A plodding Tragic Overture, and the heavier moments of Symphony No 2, recalled the old attitude to articulating Brahms's orchestral music that gave it all the flair of a reluctant shire horse. Fully scored passages became bogged down, and no amount of effort could speed them along.
The good things here, and in No 1, were the serenade-like moments when Brahms let the music flow freely. Best of all was a rare performance of the Serenade No 2, in which massed and solo woodwinds dominate the score and make the music sing out like Schubert. With a half-sized orchestra Haitink chose to be light and fleet, and without losing energy the music took on the intimacy of a chamber ensemble. The symphonies were recorded for the orch-estra's LSO Live label; luckily, the Serenade was too.
The other big success was Brahms's Double Concerto. In the tradition of giving section principals a night in the spotlight, it featured the LSO's leader Gordan Nikolitch and the principal cellist Tim Hugh, who rose to the occasion with vital intensity to deliver the gypsy-style solos that crop up throughout the concerto, and to find a light, rhythmic ease for the finale's rather square-cut tune that the stars who sometimes play this work would do well to match.
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