As musical matings go, Bernard Haitink and the Dresden Staatskapelle ranks as just about perfect. The same adjectives serve for both: cultured, refined, urbane, patrician.
As musical matings go, Bernard Haitink and the Dresden Staatskapelle ranks as just about perfect. The same adjectives serve for both: cultured, refined, urbane, patrician. The sound, the manner, everything is geared towards an air of distinction, something born of a long and illustrious tradition.
Even the way the orchestra sits accentuates its well-marinated blend of colours, with all the woodwind and brass banked up in a single central block so that no one group predominates. They listen intently to each other but to what extent do they listen to the music - its character, its personality? How much beautiful playing can one hear in a single evening without feeling that one has learned anything about why those particular notes arrived on the page in the first place?
Haitink, the Dutchman, rarely flies by the seat of his pants. It's not his style, not now, not ever. I admire him - his taste, his musicality - but I am rarely excited by him. This was no exception.
We began with Haydn, Symphony No 86 - one of the so-called "Paris" symphonies, composed between 1785 and 1786 - and while one could delight in the deftness of it all, the way, for instance, the violins had perfected the throwaway phrase, the quick reflex, the courtly elegance, Haydn's capriciousness was all too knowingly conveyed. The little teases, the audacious blind alleys came as no surprise. It was so well-bred as to be no fun at all.
Then to the Hungarian hinterlands. Bartok's Dance Suite was a lot of things but Bartok was not one of them. The sound was all wrong for starters - not one really strident note struck anywhere. No muddying of the boots for these players. The primitive, peasant character was nowhere, the folksy coarseness of individual sonorities somehow absorbed into a kind of generalised soft focus. And you would think in a piece called Dance Suite that rhythmic keenness might be a priority. Not so, in this case.
Dvorak's darkest symphony - his Seventh in D minor - proclaims its identity from the very first bars. Brooding violas - Wagner's colour - muse ominously. The harmony twists and turns. But Haitink's Dresden violas were so intent on the inflection of their subtly shaded sound that there was no equivocation about the music itself.
And so it went on. One could marvel at the passing beauties of the wind soloists, at the warm, singing quality of the string playing, at the bloom of the climaxes. At least the players were digging deeper here; Haitink had them flexing some muscle. But that homogeneous blend was still getting the better of them - and even where Haitink was plainly asking for more beef from the horns, it was not forthcoming.
I guess old habits die hard, but after more than 450 years of distinguished service you would think this venerable orchestra might risk subjugating a little of that gorgeous sound to the craggier demands of the music. Or perhaps Haitink simply didn't insist enough.
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