As Bernard Haitink brings a glorious career not to a close, surely, but rather to a new summit, he is doing so with the aid of no fewer than five of the greatest orchestras on the planet. The only disappointing thing about the regal musical progress of "Haitink at 75" is that it contains only one work written during the conductor's own lifetime (Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, with the Concertgebouw in March). Contrast the magnificent support given to young composers by Pierre Boulez on his 75th birthday world tour four years ago.
What these programmes do contain is Mahler. Lots and lots of Mahler, in fact. Haitink is, of course, one of this composer's greatest interpreters ever and it's for his superbly focused and musicianly accounts of Mahler that he is probably most cherished of all. You don't expect the emotional rollercoaster of a Bernstein or the musical fireworks of a Rattle from Haitink's Mahler. And in the performance of the Ninth Symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Barbican (the first time this distinguished band has ever played in this hall, rather surprisingly), he was true to form.
The complex half-hour first movement was accordingly shaped with enormous subtlety and persuasiveness, right from the great spans of this emotionally volatile symphonic structure down to the kind of rubato that feels absolutely natural and right, and which so many conductors get wrong through over-interpretation. The account of the Ländler second movement was, on the other hand, somewhat heavy-handed. If a Mahler conductor doesn't do irony, then there's an argument for saying that he doesn't really understand the composer at all.
Super-fine textural clarity, even in the most complex passages, helped to make the third movement much more successful. And the heart and soul of this symphony was bared with enormous intensity in the slow finale in which, again, Haitink's subtle control worked its magic.
And, it will come as no surprise, the Viennese performed for him with all their familiar finesse. That meant, for instance, woodwind playing which delighted in perfectly moulded pitch bending to add to the armoury of timbral shadings on offer. It allowed for blazing brass in the third movement that was every bit as thrilling as expected. It could mean that, amid the fourth movement's search for an ultimate destiny, the vibrato-less strings could immediately give way to heart-stopping blandishments from the solo violin.
Most of all it meant finely moulded playing from the sometimes intricately intertwining first and second violins, gorgeously deep, violas (at front right of the stage), and rich, resonant cellos and basses. Even the revamped Barbican acoustic doesn't permit the bloom on the Viennese sound this orchestra is used to at home. But it was mighty fine all the same.
- More about: