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Bernard Haitink: The Enigmatic Maestro, BBC Two review - saying goodbye with Bruckner | reviews, news & interviews

Bernard Haitink: The Enigmatic Maestro, BBC Two review - saying goodbye with Bruckner

Bernard Haitink: The Enigmatic Maestro, BBC Two review - saying goodbye with Bruckner

Candour and warmth light up a thoroughly musical portrait

Sublime affinities: Bernard Haitink conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at his final BBC Prom in September 2019BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Before his retirement last summer at the age of 90, Bernard Haitink worked magic on the podium, no one is in any doubt about that. Lining up one friend and musician after another to admit they don’t know how he does it hardly seems the most promising basis for a feature-length documentary. Yet John Bridcut’s film also works, rather like one of Haitink’s performances, by placing trust in his material and moulding its form with a nudge here, a pause there.

The result, no less than his much admired portrait of Janet Baker, is worthy of its subject, and praise doesn’t come higher than that.

There are conscious and subconscious barriers to pass when exploring the conductor’s art and craft, acknowledged by the “enigma” of the subtitle. In laconically discussing his profession Haitink continues to fall back on a vein of self-deprecation that amounts to a characteristically Dutch form of candour. Why was this nine-year-old lad gripped by Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony when he first heard it over the radio? “I can’t answer you.”

Bridcut’s linking narration refrains from insulting the viewer’s intelligence whatever their level of musical experience, and he knows what the telling question is, when and how to ask it. One of them elicits a piercing flash of self-examination. “I can translate music with my hands. And I’m quite proud of that.” Some of us have expended thousands of words analysing what conductors do and come nowhere close to this simple truth.

I was once told by a young musician that with Haitink, the eyes are everything. Interviewed by Bridcut, one of his children and a member of the Chicago SO both say likewise. Going much beyond that – “some metaphysical process – it’s much more than beating time,” he says – is impossible without resort to specifics, and here Bridcut has some aces up his sleeve. The pianist Emanuel Ax listens back to the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony and points out the tiny, mysterious rhythmic shifts that bring it to life. Sir Thomas Allen, atmospherically lit, ruminates over Haitink’s way with the third-act Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.

The conductor’s rise in charge of the initially recalcitrant Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, his happy directorships of ensembles in London and Chicago and his rockier tenure at the Royal Opera, are filled in with recollections gleaned from a childhood friend, colleagues and family members, as well as archive footage such as the not-so “Quiet Dutchman” raising a storm in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

The new angle, the fresh perspective, is opened up by Haitink’s childhood memories of occupied Amsterdam. His father, head of the Dutch electrical company, was held by the Gestapo for three months. He recalls being taken to concerts in a Concertgebouw hall largely filled by German officers, and spares little in his withering appraisal of countrymen who collaborated with the Nazis, as well as those who assumed the undeserved mantle of heroism after the fighting was over and took humiliating revenge on those collaborators. In this context, the judgement of a Royal Opera House colleague, that Haitink was “the moral centre of the place – he saved people’s jobs”, becomes more than another warm tribute.

In his closing chapter, Bridcut trains the focus on Haitink’s farewell performances of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. A thoroughly musical, engrossing film reaches its high-point with the serene climax to the symphony’s Adagio, followed by a brief and unsentimental coda. Ax and Allen ask him to come back. Will he? “I’m afraid not.”



I was at that final concert - and many before that. Bernard Haitink introduced me to Bruckner forty years ago. For that and for many other concerts I shall always greatly honour this wonderful conductor - a man nice in every way.

I unfortunately never had the opportunity to hear him live, but he is altogether seminal for my musical education. The recordings I borrowed from a local library - his recordings of Mahler's fourth and Bruckner's seventh - introduced both composers to me, and from that on - from the early nineties - both composers have been integral to my daily digestion.

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