This weekend Bernard Haitink visits the Royal College of Music to conduct the RCM Symphony Orchestra in Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie. There are two concerts - tonight, Friday (I'm going), and tomorrow.
Both sold out long ago, but the Saturday one will be shown live on the RCM website, starting at some time around 8.00-8.30pm. A talk by Professor Paul Banks precedes it at 6.30pm, followed by a performance of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll conducted by Mikk Murdvee at 7.30pm.
And the streaming doesn't stop there. Next Sunday a full day of Liszt, performed by students, is beamed across the internets. This is part of Lisztomania, a free festival which runs all weekend - just turn up and listen live if you're in the area.
But, most unusually for Zurich, the 80-something conductor of Tristan und Isolde, Bernard Haitink, was roundly booed by a large section of the normally placid Swiss audience.
His offence? The last-minute replacement of the scheduled Isolde, Waltraud Meier, by Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter, following "musical differences".
“Haitink and Meier are two exceptional artists and strong personalities, who express their opinions clearly. They couldn't agree on this project,” Joachim Arnold, marketing head of the opera house, diplomatically explained.
*UPDATE* an unofficial record of the incident (booing begins around 3:18):
This clip from The House, a 1995 BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary (not available in the ROH shop), is a glimpse into a troubled time in the Royal Opera House's history.
There are angry scenes outside the house as traditionalists protest at the premiere of Birtwistle's Gawain. A Magic Flute production imported from Scottish Opera fails to hit the spot (no surprise - it looks like a school play). The music director Bernard "maybe I'm too old-fashioned" Haitink whinges that if he doesn't understand the new Ring, the audience won't either. (Bernard's audience are the sort who applaud over the last bars of Meistersinger).
"Every rehearsal period is a battlefield between the musical and dramatic elements," concludes general director Nicholas Payne. "That's what opera's about".
Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Haitink - Royal Festival Hall, 24 September 2009
Playfulness doesn't come any more easily to Bernard Haitink than it does to Gordon Brown. But the effort made his 'Clock' Symphony a livelier affair than last night's Mozart. Still, the CSO need to let their hair down more to sparkle convincingly in Haydn.
Bruckner's Seventh employed the glacial perfection of the Chicago sound to better effect. Haitink is skilled in constructing these gigantic works inch by inch, brick by brick. His subtle shifts of dynamic and balance, his diligent observation of tempo markings like 'a little slower' might not register in a more wayward ensemble. But here every ripple on the cool glossy surface told its own story.
Bruckner is frequently accused of being repetitive and by extension, boring (was that the reason for the many empty seats?) And if you simply look at the notes, there's a certain truth in that. But Haitink adds nuance, whether it's reflecting myriad facets in the central motif in the opening Allegro or shimmering through the descending strings of the coda. He creates a momentum that's not a mad burst of energy but a stately, almost imperceptible glide to the finishing line. And that's what Bruckner's all about. As Jaap van Zweden so eloquently put it "it makes you clean inside".
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.