Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Haitink - Royal Festival Hall, 23 September 2009
This first of the CSO's two-night Royal Festival Hall residency displayed the best and the worst of the American approach. On a technical level, they are consummate musicians, and not just individually. Their intonation is immaculate, their ensemble so precise that lines of bows glide up and down as if attached to the same invisible string. Their vibrato trembles in unison; even the piccolo is in tune all night. They bend as one into any shape a conductor desires.
In the 'Jupiter' Symphony, this translated into a joyless performance of sterile perfection - Mozart by numbers. I'm grateful Haitink spared us the syrup, but this performance needed more seasoning to bring it to life.
But the inexorable tread that sucked Haitink's Mozart dry brought Brahms's first Symphony to life. The tautly responsive CSO let him pull and mould those long lines, leaping and swooping with feline ease. The final movement's famous quotation from Beethoven's 9th became both banal and profound, gloriously uplifting. In less wise hands, this orchestra could become a blunt weapon of meticulously-crafted tedium. In Haitink's, it's magic. Sometimes, anyway.