sat 20/07/2024

Prom 60: Ax, Vienna Philharmonic, Haitink review - moving mountains at 90 | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 60: Ax, Vienna Philharmonic, Haitink review - moving mountains at 90

Prom 60: Ax, Vienna Philharmonic, Haitink review - moving mountains at 90

Time becomes perfectly-managed space in a great conductor's official UK finale

Haitink: calm authorityAll images BBC/Chris Christodoulou

His movements are minimal (perhaps they always were). A more intense flick of the baton, a sudden wider sweep of the expressive left hand, can help quicken a tempo, draw extra firepower from the players, but Bernard Haitink's conducting is still the most unforced and, well, musicianly, in the world.

His decision to retire from official concert-giving - a "sabbatical", his biography says - after the season in which he celebrated his 90th birthday with two LSO concerts in March means we'll miss him terribly. But it was a timely gesture, like everything he's ever done. This Prom will not be forgotten.

Having the Vienna Philharmonic to lay down the red carpet for him was a special luxury in Bruckner. Oddly, the Fourth with the LSO earlier this year was a more emotional experience than this Seventh, for me, at least, partly because it's a symphony that's so much harder to succeed in (and there was proof that no-one can really make Bruckner's worst finale work). I sensed more behind the eyes and between the ears of the Concertgebouw, too, when he conducted this, the best-loved Bruckner, on the Dutch orchestra's visit to the Barbican some years back. Haitink and the VPO at the PromsYet it remains the most natural of interpretations, moving the first-movement exposition forwards, but without any rush, in a way that uniquely binds its diverse material together. Haitink barely needs to conduct his woodwind (two women in there now, none among the brass); I'll not easily forget his words to young conducting students in Lucerne last year - "trust the players; they know much more than you do".

He refuses to smooth out the noble string hymn of the Adagio, keeping the first three notes of their response accented as the score indicates and relatively light so that the expressive beans aren't spilled too soon. How the big crescendo here quickened and unfurled with those sudden urgencies of conducting style, towards an unforced climax where the (optional) cymbal crash had no hint of forced rhetoric about it. And does any Wagner tuba section (horns five to eight) intone more nobly or perfectly - pitch in these instruments is notoriously wayward - than that of the Vienna Philharmonic? Haitink at the PromsIf the scherzo was more stately than fiery, that helped to ensure that the finale truly crowned the work. This was perhaps the biggest revelation of a remarkable evening, the Haydnesque radiance of the start counterbalanced by the massive unisons. The biggest emotion of all was saved for the coda, the last mountain peak always in sight for Haitink the master of long-term argument.

With Emanuel Ax replacing Murray Perahia in Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, we simply got another master of effortless space in perfect dialogue with Haitink and his players, the seemingly effortless injection of air into phrases common to both.What a pleasure it was to stand among totally quiet, attentive Prommers for this half. Liszt's famous image for the most remarkable and perhaps the shortest of great slow movements - Orpheus taming the Furies - gave way to that of a civilized conversation between two very different personalities (the sterner of the two impersonated by the orchestra on this occasion). And the finale was sheer, effortless joy, the carefully-regulated orchestral poundings a reminder that even a few years ago Haitink still had the energy to electrify in that symphonic "apotheosis of the dance", Beethoven's Seventh. Emanuel Ax and Haitink at the PromsAx's encore, Schubert's A flat Impromptu, was one of ineffable perfection, and might have been a portrait of Haitink in music: understatedly noble, radiant - as he certainly seemed when I met him in Lucerne - and self-deprecating. At least it gave the conductor respite from taking another bow. Many were expected at the end of the Bruckner, and yielded the moving spectacle of the Vienna Philharmonic's concertmaster for the evening, Volkhardt Steude, giving the master his arm to lead him off and bring him back to the platform - a final image of total collegiality and mutual respect. If this was indeed Haitink's last UK concert - and who knows, he may be back to step in for a younger conductor, or to give a masterclass with the London students he values so much  - it was the most humane and glowing way possible for him to take his leave.


Nice review David! Honest, affectionate and articulate. I was also lucky enough to be there and it really was an unbelievable experience. I have NEVER, in all my 61 years, witnessed an entire audience on its feet, crying and cheering at the same time

Thanks - it came, as they say, from a place of love, like the reception at the end. Glad you mentioned the mass standing ovation of, what would it be, 6,000 people?

The standing ovation lasted for 9’51’’ according to the time on my camera data. 40 years of shows at the Royal Albert Hall and 38 years of Proms over 3500 concerts I have never seen an ovation like it.

In response to your question, according to online information "present day safety restrictions mean the maximum permitted capacity is now 5,544 including standing in the Gallery" . It was full so a pretty good estimation on your part

Thanks. It was, as I wrote, a remarkable experience to stand for the first half in a packed Arena. It takes me back to one of my first Proms, Haitink conducting the LPO in Mahler's 'Resurrection', where the admittance to the Arena stopped just in front of me and I had to endure the Gallery - generally better to stay at home and listen on the radio in that instance.

On YouTube, there are several Haitink videos from the 1980s, and perhaps also the late 1970s, like the Mahler 'Kerstmatinees', where his movements are anything but minimal. But you probably already found those videos. Great review, and again glad to know that you got to be there for this grand finale of Haitink. Will have to give it a proper listen again on iPlayer at home, to get the non-headphone experience. I admit that I've never been a Bruckner fan, which makes it a bit ironic that my first experience of Haitink live was him with the VPO, and Bruckner 7, along with Schoenberg's op. 16. (I had a similar thought as you about Emanuel Ax's encore, regarding the additional rest time factor for the conductor.) I've actualy become a fan of Promming in the Gallery, especially when able to be close to the center. The sound is a touch distant, but clear. I've actually found it more sympathetic sonically than the Arena, as much as the Arena is considered 'the place to be' for anyone wishing to Prom.

Confession: I love Bruckner less the older I get (growing blind spot?). But will still make exceptions for 3, 5, 7 and 9. And any Bruckner symphony made natural by Haitink.

Perhaps the one Bruckner symphony that I would make an exception for is 9, if I had to choose one. Even all of Stephen Johnson's eloquent advocacy on R3 and elsewhere cannot make me get into Bruckner, because AB's music is just such a turnoff on the whole. (I know orchestra musicians who feel the same way, for obvious reasons of enhanced carpal tunnel syndrome risk.) The paradox of this situation is that any conductor, at least here in the USA, who conducts Bruckner really, really wants to do it for artistic reasons, and not for box office, because Bruckner is pretty much death at the box office here (bully Barenboim's full 2017 cycle at Carnegie aside). Hwre with the SLSO, back in the day, Hans Vonk (something of a Haitink protégé) was big into Bruckner. The most recent SLSO performance of Bruckner was #9, with John Storgards. Not the best Bruckner 9 that I've ever heard, but I like JS very much as a conductor, as does the orchestra. Currently, Andris Nelsons seems to be flying the flag for Bruckner with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, if his recent Prom and his new DG album series are anything to go by. YNS is also a big Bruckner fan.

It was my first Prom in 1970, and my first Mahler, 9th symphony, that I was introduced to Haitink and his beloved Concertgebouw. What an impression that made then, lucky enough to have seen him several times since. Happy sabbatical!

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