Sunday, March 19, 2017

Haitink Captivates Boston - Again

Bernard Haitink, photo Robert Torres


Symphony Hall, Boston

Boston Symphony Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink has sustained a mutually respectful relationship with the BSO and its audiences for over 40 years. That the orchestra adores working with the iconic musician was clearly in evidence this weekend at Symphony Hall, as Haitink once again captivated his Symphony Hall audience with one French favorite bookended by two Austrian ones.

Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 60, subtitled Il distratto, or “scatterbrained,” was last heard here in 1976. Landing just beyond halfway in Haydn’s catalogue of over 100 symphonies, the work was composed in 1774, while Haydn occupied himself by creating music for his patron Prince Esterházy’s theatrical troupe. 17th century French comedies were all the rage at the time, and Haydn showed comic expertise in this lighthearted piece, supplementing the genre’s usual four movements with an additional two.

Elegance is always a major component of Haitink’s musical raison d’être, and it epitomized the performance he led here by keeping its tone buoyant and lively. Building on the composer’s theatrical-cum-operatic associations, the maestro imparted a tongue-in-cheek, Opéra Comique lightness, to the six Mozartean aria-ensemble like movements: from the dainty agility of the opening Allegro to the stylish frolicking of the Menuetto to the Hungarian atmospherics of its G Minor Allegro and fun-loving Prestissimo finale. The latter, with its highly amusing version of Mozart’s Musical Joke scordatura in the violins, was conducted with quick-tempo verve and executed with easy virtuosity by the BSO strings.

Debussy’s Trois Nocturnes for Orchestra, premiered in its entirety in 1901, is the embodiment of the ethereal impressionism at which the composer excelled. The music shimmered and undulated in the opening Nuages, danced gaily in Fêtes, and haunted the listener with the mystery of its Sirènes.

Tangled Festival Chorus, Photo Robert Torres
Nuages ("Clouds") pays homage to Debussy’s own La Mer, with its constant swirl of wave-like movement that seduces the listener. Haitink captured the atmosphere perfectly, lulling the audience into an ecstatic, dreamlike state, paving the way for the striking contrast of the second Fêtes (“Festivals”) movement. Haitink whipped the orchestra into a celebratory frenzy in the opening section and in the movement’s martial middle section, demonstrating sweeping authority and stateliness with the mere stroke of an expressive left hand and always at the ready to emphasize a dynamic or a key harmonic fluctuation.

Reminiscent of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, the “Sirens” of the third movement, sweetly evoked by the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, capped the performance with grace and style, leaving the audience tingling with warmth and primed for Haitink’s next foray.

Richard Wagner, especially influenced by Beethoven’s symphonies No. 7 and 9, called Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony “the apotheosis of the dance.” George Bernard Shaw was of a different mind, characterizing its finale as sounding like “rum-tum.” History belies the latter assessment, as the work has been an audience favorite from its premiere in 1813, coincidentally the year of Wagner’s birth.

Beethoven’s progression from his earlier classical symphonies to his later ones is not unlike that of from Wagner's earliest to latest operas. Haitink, whose operatic roots run deep, brought a vocal undulation to the work, most notably in the protracted introduction to the first movement, beautifully enhanced by an exquisite solo oboe. Haitink’s grace and poise on the podium are two of his most engaging characteristics, duly emphasized the dance rhythms of the stylish and refined first movement, embodying Wagner’s “apotheosis” declaration.

Bernard Haitink, Photo Clive Barda

In the Allegretto second movement, Haitink drew maximum poignancy from the relentless repeated rhythms and hammering harmonies, allowing the BSO strings to sing to their fullest, keeping the tempo con mosso. By contrast, in the Scherzo, the maestro maintained a light, cheerful and refined presence, without overemphasizing the vivacious interjections that punctuate the rapid flow of the dance cadences.

In Haitink’s interpretation no one would mistake the final Allegro con brio for rum-tum. He had the wisdom to stand back and just let the orchestra, which has this work running through its veins, play their hearts out with the abandon and exuberance that are inherent in the work’s character. This is a movement that benefits from the experience of a veteran, and Haitink demonstrated his canny understanding of Beethoven’s style to the maximum, with an ever-increasing crescendo to a most joyful and satisfying ending.


Photo credits: Robert Torres, Clive Barda

Erica Miner may be reached at: [email protected]

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