Bernard Haitink, who has died aged 92, was, quite simply, one of the most revered conductors of the last 65 years.
Whether at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw, London Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony orchestras, or in the pit at Glyndebourne or the Royal Opera House, his generally quiet and undemonstrative demeanour was in contrast to the performances of extraordinary explosive power and emotion he could produce from his players and singers.
Born in Amsterdam on 4 March 1929, Haitink learned the violin from an early age. Much of his childhood was blighted by the Nazi invasion of his home country in the Second World War during which, as he revealed in the 2020 BBC TV documentary Bernard Haitink, The Enigmatic Maestro, his family had to eat tulips to avoid starvation. After studying violin and conducting at the Amsterdam Conservatory in the early 1950s, he continued his studies on a series of intensive courses at the Netherlands Radio – he conducted the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time in 1954 and by 1957 had risen to the position of chief conductor.
By this stage, Haitink had already made his debut with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, filling in for Carlo Maria Giulini at late notice, and in 1961 he was appointed as the ensemble’s principal conductor. He would remain with the orchestra until 1988, a reign of 27 years that saw them produce a wealth of superlative recordings for the Philips label. It was not an entirely trouble-free period, however, and in the early 1980s he threatened to resign in protest at proposed cuts to its funding from the government.
During those same years, Haitink also also held two major posts in England: as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1967-79) and as music director at Glyndebourne Opera (1978-88). His links to London would then continue with 15 successful years as music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 1987 to 2002.
Though into his eighth decade by the turn of the Millennium, Haitink continued to both carry on guest-conducting widely and take on new posts: two years as chief conductor at the Staatskapelle Dresden (2002-4) were followed by four seasons as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (2006-10). His final concerts took place in September 2019, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (with Emanuel Ax as soloist) and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, first at the BBC Proms and then at the Lucerne Festival.
For many, Haitink will be remembered for his extraordinary command and pacing of large-scale symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner, but for others he was just as notable for the warm richness of his Brahms, the visceral excitement of his Shostakovich or for teasing out the nuances of Mozart operas. In 2018, his recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra won him, at the age of 89, the BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year. ‘There is a kind of mystery about him,’ reflected the orchestra’s leader, Radoslaw Szulc, at the time. ‘He doesn’t seem to do much, but he has a view for the whole, hearing as you would from very far up a mountain.’
We named Bernard Haitink one of the greatest conductors of all time
Photo of Bernard Haitink by John Millar