The lightness of being: Haitink at 85
Helen Wallace finds the Dutch maestro on form
A London concert by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is always an event: this is the orchestra whose recordings of Haydn and Beethoven with Claudio Abbado and Nikolaus Harnoncourt remain, for many, benchmarks, and whose unerring taste in programming, partnerships and performance style remains fresh after 33 years. The orchestra's Brahms Proms with Bernard Haitink in 2011 revealed a special relationship, and tonight's programme packed the Barbican Hall.
From the pungent first chords of Schumann’s Manfred Overture this was playing of the highest order: fluid, articulate and beautifully balanced, with cellos placed centrally and second violins antiphonally to firsts. Haitink conjured its sense of swirling urgency with the lightest of touches, building a powerful momentum before the simple pathos of its close.
Isabelle Faust’s recording of the Berg Violin Concerto with Abbado, two years ago, made a big impact; a live performance cannot be as detailed but cast its spell. Her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Strad sang with an icy sweetness in the bare opening fifths, twining with the magical sonorities of bass clarinet and harp. Refined solos from principal bassist Enno Senft loomed up like wraiths in this intriguing first section, where he is the lone string player. Occasionally one felt Faust had to struggle to project over the orchestra, which made the Allegretto’s dance tune a little stiff and slow in its first appearance, but it warmed up and the movement took wing, ending with an insouciant-sounding trumpet solo and her frosted harmonics.
Faust’s stormy welter of notes at the start of the Allegro were wildly spontaneous, and orchestra’s jagged syncopations dragged on her with sinister force. Her sheer range was remarkable, from hoarse barking to the golden shimmer of her lyrical playing. In the Adagio Richard Hosford’s poignant clarinet solo of Bach’s ‘Es ist genug’ crept in like a blessing; she answered with throaty angst. It wasn’t just wind and brass soloists who shone: muted first violins joined in her far-off melody with exquisite intuition. The only jarring note was the bizarre added sixth chord which ends the concerto, and is almost impossible to play really quietly. It may reference Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, but carries Hollywood glare that seems quite out of place.
Beethoven’s Pastoral came like a healing balm after the trauma of Berg’s valediction. Haitink found a wonderfully natural ebb and flow, very different from the point-making of Harnoncourt: this was all energy, radiance and delight. Strings seethed with light, wind solos were celestial, particularly in the Peasant’s merry-making, where bassoon grew as if from nothing into the duet with clarinet. The storm was darkly disruptive, while the Shepherd’s Hymn was played simply, without vibrato, giving it a heart-stopping innocence. The self-effacing Haitink received a roar of approval, which he graciously insisted the orchestra share.
The COE can be heard with Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the Barbican on 7 June and will be resident at the Aldeburgh Festival from 21-29 June