Friday, November 20, 2009


On Thursday night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Bernard Haitink conduct the Boston Symphony.

We attended the Thursday night concert, and not the Saturday night concert, because Thursday was Josh’s birthday. Josh turned 26 on Thursday, and we wanted to do something special to mark the occasion.

Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 was on the program. Having heard Brahms’s Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 on Sunday, we were able to experience the rare occurrence, for us, of hearing three of the four Brahms symphonies within a very short period of time.

Haitink is a good but not a great Brahms conductor. He does not offer any special insight into the symphonies, and he does not place a unique stamp on his Brahms performances. Haitink’s Brahms is measured and thoughtful, not inspired or profound.

Thursday night’s performance of the Brahms First was, most of all, solid. Nothing inept, nothing untoward, nothing weird happened. The listener was in good hands. Yet nothing magical happened, either.

Josh and I last heard the Boston Symphony perform Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 in the late summer of 2007, when we heard James Levine lead the orchestra in the work at The Royal Albert Hall in London.

Levine’s performance had been uneventful, even dull. It was as undistinguished and tedious a Brahms First as anyone is ever likely to hear. The orchestra’s sound that night was unpleasant and impossibly thick, like a flow of soured molasses. The orchestra’s sound no doubt had not been flattered by the inadequate acoustics of The Royal Albert Hall—and yet the Vienna Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus had managed to sound marvelous in the very same hall on the preceding evenings.

Haitink obtained more momentum in the music than Levine, and he made an effort to shape the music into a coherent whole while rendering the wide range of expression called for by the composer. Nonetheless, I was—for the umpteenth time—unmoved by Haitink in Brahms. I long ago concluded that Haitink has more respect than passion for the great Hamburg master.

The orchestra sounded better under Haitink than under Levine, less gruff and less blowsy and less pasty—yet no reasonable person could possibly claim that the Boston Symphony has a beautiful or sophisticated sound. The sound lacks transparency, and subtlety, and color, and bloom. The orchestra is utterly incapable of a sustained, fully-supported pianissimo. The current sound is richer and the beneficiary of better blending than in the Ozawa years, but the sound quality of the Boston Symphony remains rough, very definitely on the level of a regional ensemble.

The first half of the concert, devoted to music of Debussy and Ibert, was much more successful than the Brahms.

The concert began with a performance of Debussy’s “Nocturnes”.

Haitink gave a remarkable performance of one of Debussy’s very finest orchestral works. All of Haitink’s imagination was at work in the Debussy. Unlike the Brahms, Haitink was fully engaged, and fully in command.

Given what he had to work with, Haitink obtained a broad range of colors, timbres, and layers of sound from the orchestra. He shaped and overlapped musical phrases like a master of the Debussy idiom (which he is). His conducting was unhurried, even leisurely, and yet he maintained musical tension and thrust in one of the most difficult pieces in the repertory to bring off.

I had never before heard a successful live performance of the “Nocturnes”, and I was thrilled. I suspect it will be years before I hear another.

The performance was marred in “Sirenes” by intonation woes by The Women Of The Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

After the Debussy, James Galway joined the orchestra for a performance of Ibert’s Flute Concerto, one of that composer’s most delightful and appealing works.

The Ibert is the kind of thing that Galway can toss off in his sleep—and he usually does—but on Thursday night the soloist for once appeared to be interested in the music, and not operating under remote control. Reading from a score (and wearing a very bold jacket cut from drapes discarded by the old Helmsley Palace), Galway gave a fine performance.

1 comment:

  1. If I’m not mistaken, Haitink has not appeared in Cleveland since we’ve been here (1973). That’s odd, because he would seem a natural fit for the Cleveland Orchestra.

    Haitink did appear in Cleveland before 1973. He was, I hear, very much admired by everyone.