Two evenings of the golden-toned Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under its conductor laureate Bernhard Haitink were bound to pack out the hall for bills sandwiching Debussy between chunks of Wagner and, even more, for Bruckner's Symphony No 8, long a Proms favourite thanks to the efforts of Rudolf Kempe, Gunther Wand and Haitink himself (though in the days of Sir Henry Wood it would have emptied the Queen's Hall, had he dared to programme it).
Curiously, the Bruckner came off the less well. Haitink has abandoned the fuller Haas edition of the score for the more cautious Nowak version, with its jarringly unmusical excision in the slow movement. Also, his approach is slower and softer-edged than when he and the Concertgebouw so vitally recorded the work in the 1970s.
The tragic first movement, in particular, lacked real tension. And though the Adagio did at length rise to the radiant heights, the blazing culmination of the finale somehow failed to clinch the 85-minute work as it should.
The Act 1 Prelude and Good Friday Music from Parsifal, which opened the second evening, seemed to confirm that Haitink is more concerned now with tone and flow than precision – chords were often less than together, though Wagner's blended textures glowed radiantly. And the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan, which rounded off the programme, brought passion at last – still more the jubilant Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin thrown in as encore.
Best of all was the reading of Debussy's Three Nocturnes – mesmerically remote in "Nuages", ebullient in "Fêtes", luxuriously sensual in "Sirènes", with the ladies of Tenebrae keening seductively. There was a Debussy rarity too: the Six épigraphes antiques, originally music for tableaux vivants that Debussy arranged for piano duet. The chamber orchestra arrangement we heard by the late Dutch composer Rudolf Escher proved full of exotic touches. All the same, Ernst Ansermet's full-orchestra version surely offers a more idiomatic idea of what Debussy might have done had he realised his intention to score the work himself.
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