Prom 67, 68 and 70, Royal Albert Hall, London

He conducts, he scores!
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The Independent Culture

Bernard Haitink's performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Prom 70) drew a packed audience to what was, for many, the unofficial Last Night of the Proms. Bruch may be pretty. Mozart is fine and dandy. But for music that describes a landscape that is infinitely larger and more elaborate than the Royal Albert Hall, has nothing to do with empires won and lost, and actually suits the acoustics, Mahler is your man.

Haitink's measured interpretation of this sometimes rapturous, sometimes tortured, sometimes gauche work - a bizarre fantasy of natural and supernatural joys and terrors, with blatant debts to Berlioz and Wagner, and some of the weaknesses of both - was triply remarkable. First, for the sheer breadth of his phrasing in the vast first movement. Second, for producing the most ambitious and committed performance of a core repertoire work that the BBCSO has given since its Tristan und Isolde under Donald Runnicles. Third, for his self-effacing accompaniment of soprano Susan Gritton, mezzo-soprano Christiane Stotijn, and the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the London Symphony Chorus.

I have heard sweeter performances of the Resurrection Symphony, and performances of greater technical assurance, but none where the words of "Aufersteh'n" have communicated such depth of collective feeling, where tension was maintained so completely between the first and second movements, where the off-stage musicians have used a venue to such unnerving effect, or where Mahler's imagery - birdsong, sunlit alps, teeming fish, the apocalyptic convulsions of the Day of Judgement, the balm of divine love - has been so sharply characterised without slipping into cinematic vulgarity. Though the horns were under strain and the first violins remain unsettled, this was a very powerful performance from the BBCSO. The tuning of the trombones was peerless, the cellos and basses played with total focus, and the solos from Bill Houghton (trumpet), Michael Cox (flute), Celia Craig (cor anglais), and Richard Smith (oboe) were excellent. Haitink may have had to work harder with this orchestra than he would have with the London Symphony Orchestra or the Concertgebouw, but perhaps the results were all the more special because of that.

Christoph Eschenbach's programme of Beethoven's and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphonies with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Prom 67), which I watched on BBC Four, was the other big draw of the last week of the Proms. I should have listened to the radio. If the upside of televised concerts is being able to see the conductor's eyes, the downside is camera-work that follows a score like Match of the Day: woodwind to strings, strings to woodwind, and... tutti! Thankfully, fade-ins - whereby a ghostly violin emanates from the bell of a horn - were restricted to the Tchaikovsky, which is a more fade in-friendly symphony. Especially in Eschenbach's performance, which saw the closing chord of the first movement taper into the first note of the second.

Was this mystic blurring Eschenbach's take on what Tchaikovsky termed "the inscrutable design of Providence" or merely a crafty cough-suppressant? I suspect the latter. Though the brief oboe solo in the first movement of the Beethoven was stretched like sugar-candy, such self-indulgences were rare. Lean and incisive, with sharp sforzandi and searing articulation, Eschenbach's taut Beethoven scotched the idea that large forces mean leaden tempi. His Tchaikovsky was similarly dynamic. Where other conductors might wallow in the Philadelphia's luxuriant timbre, he eschewed excess sentimentality in the long melodies. At no point did either work slip into vacuous showmanship, though the absolute invulnerability of conductor and orchestra somehow diluted the impact of these highly personal narratives of struggle. A magnetic performance then, especially from the Philadelphia's principal horn, but one that could have done with a touch of human frailty.

Back in radio-land, far away from the opus number sudoku competitions and inane novelty acts that litter the Proms intervals on BBC Four, I was utterly enchanted by Camerata Salzburg's elegant performance of Mozart and Haydn under Leonidas Kavakos (Prom 68). Unlike many violinist-directors, Kavakos has an ear for the bass-line, and a real understanding of the inner harmonies that support and shape the progress of a melody. Mozart's earliest symphony, with its blushing dissonances for the oboes and gentle cello figures, had a delectable plumpness around its middle, while the G Major Concerto, with its ravishing aria and witty rondo, was indefatigably stylish. This is a very happy marriage of ensemble and director, and their performance of Haydn's Symphony No 82 would make any bear dance.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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