BBC Proms 2014: Bernard Haitink and London Symphony Orchestra
Haitink conducts the LSO in Schubert and Mahler
‘There is no music, no music on earth, that can be compared to ours,’ confided a fresh-voiced Camilla Tilling in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. And that’s just how Schubert and Mahler sounded from the baton of Bernard Haitink, whose physical frailty seems only to have intensified the Apollonian radiance of his art.
A slimmed-down London Symphony Orchestra produced just the silken rustle of sound required of Schubert’s Mozartian Fifth, with phrasing of effortless grace. The composer’s ‘school house’ symphonies can disappoint: if we hope for the coruscating drama of his songs or chamber music, we look in vain. But for all the Fifth is dubbed carefree, the daring interplay of light and shadow in the slow movement signal his future direction. Winds question in the major, to be answered by strings in the minor, tugging the music back into introspection. The LSO winds produced infinitely long lines here, and a sense of almost hypnotic stillness. Haitink took the Allegro vivace at a lick, so that echoing phrases appeared to tumble uncontrollably over each other – what can sound tame and four-square was here breathlessly alive.
Appearing in full after the interval, (oddly in the modern orchestral arrangement, with all violins on the left), the LSO carried the classical delicacy of the Schubert through into the Mahler. The tension between freely shaped solos and ticking sleigh bells made for a zinging first movement, while leader Tomo Keller proved a snappish and sinister fiddler ‘Hain’ in a scherzo of electric crackle.
The Fourth’s slow movement emerged into the cavernous hall like some iridescent, sub-aqua life form, floating, shimmering, each chord change almost imperceptible; each cadence a murmured coalescence. Haitink, who can make silence speak as eloquently as sound, created an exquisite, unhurried flow.
Whether our ears have been sullied by recordings in which the string balance is enhanced, or whether the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic swallowed their tone, the first violins seemed distinctly underpowered in their climactic utterances. The 14-note plunge into fortissimo needs a visceral edge: here it felt pale. Yet who would have been without Haitink’s spell-binding ‘Zehr zart und innig’, (tender and inward) episode before the movement’s end, in which he drew five thousand listeners into a breath-held pause? In the finale, Camilla Tilling took on the role of ‘child’ with a striking innocence and carelessness bordering on cruelty, as it should be. No heavy vibrato or over-projection dressed her clear but vulnerable soprano. She demanded we lean in to hear her, as the symphony melted to its hallowed close, over the distinctive low twang of bass harp – has any one ever again used that instrument to such haunting effect? We left walking on air.