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.
Unprecedented hostilities at Zurich Opera House on Tuesday night. No, they didn't whip out their Swiss Army knives and torment each other with the corkscrew attachment.
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):
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.
Summer is nearly over, and at last the concert calendar is filling up.
Proms and alternatives The Proms seem to have gone on forever, but it'll all be over for another year on 12 September.
Remaining highlights include Mariss Jansons with the Concertgebouw, Riccardo Chailly with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta and Franz Welser-Möst (replacing the scheduled Harnoncourt).
On 4 September there's an unmissable double header - first Matthias Goerne and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester in Mahler, Ligeti, Schoenberg and Strauss, then a late-night George Crumb special.
Incidentally, operatic highlights for the 2010 Proms - you heard it here first - are expected to include Die Meistersinger with Bryn Terfel, Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni, and a substantial chunk of Tristan und Isolde from the Orchestra of the 18th Century with Ben Heppner.
If you want to skip the ghastliness of the last night - something I cannot recommend too highly - alternatives include the Wigmore Hall season opener which is Die schöne Müllerin from Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis.
Or there's a FREE screening of the 1929 silent movie Piccadilly on an outside wall (don't blame me if it rains) of the Royal Festival Hall accompanied by a new score from composers Suki Mok and Ruth Chan. Following the screening, the score "will become the lynchpin of a cross-artform work incorporating dance, drama and video against a backdrop of the original silent movie".
Opera The Royal Opera House season opens on 7 September with two concert performances of Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix conducted by Mark Elder and featuring Alessandro Corbelli alongside the hotly-tipped Eglise Gutiérrez and Stephen Costello.
Don Carlo has started rehearsals and promises to turn out even better than first time round. Semyon Bychkov conducts, Jonas Kaufmann is in the title role, and the rest of the cast is much the same as it was first time round, with Marina Poplavskaya, Simon Keenlyside and Ferruccio Furlanetto reprising his definitive Philip.
Don't expect much on stage except the singers in born-again minimalist Christof Loy's new production of Tristan und Isolde. Tristan is Ben Heppner and Isolde Nina Stemme, with Matti Salminen, Michael Volle and Sophie Koch completing the cast. Pappano conducts.
English National Opera's season opens with the much-travelled, highly-praised production of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre by La Fura dels Baus.
The Arcola Theatre's variable but occasionally brilliant (and cheap) Grimeborn opera festival continues until 5 September. Handel, Poulenc and Mozart are included amongst the mostly contemporary works.
There's an opportunity to hear Rossini's rarely-performed Il Signor Bruschino and La Scala di Seta as well as The Rake's Progress from British Youth Opera between 4 and 12 September.
Prom 5: LSO / Haitink - Royal Albert Hall, 20 July 2009
Bernard Haitink balances his baton on his head while keeping his comedy dagger close to hand. No wonder the cellist looks anxious.
This year's Proms line-up doesn't exactly thrill me to the core of my being, the first month especially.
But I couldn't pass up the opportunity to hear Mahler's 9th conducted by one of his greatest interpreters, Bernard Haitink, and performed by the mighty LSO. Even though it cost a massive £19 for an unspectacular seat behind the orchestra. Around this time of year newspapers often spout about how cheap and brilliant arena promming is (from the comfort of their freebie best seats in the house). Perhaps they don't realise that for popular concerts like this, especially with an early start time, you're simply not going to get in unless you spend most of the afternoon queuing. (And even then you're going to be standing up for an hour and a half while the odours of sock, sandal and anorak waft beneath your nostrils, but I digress). A costly seat is unfortunately the only option.
The last time I heard this symphony was in Berlin, where Daniel Barenboim, on a rare off-day, flayed it to a bleeding pulp. The ever-refined Haitink, leaning on a stool after his recent back operation and conducting with a considered physical economy, could not have been more different.
A spirit of discovery pervaded the first movement right from the primordial emergence of the first sparing notes. Questions were asked objectively and answered unsentimentally, the LSO (strings especially) demonstrating taut control and unity of purpose. Even the second movement's rustic ländler, marked sehr derb (very coarse) maintained a languid distance. The temperature warmed in the third movement's febrile rondo, its exposed groupings demonstrating the strength in depth of each section of the orchestra. Everything came together in a finale of monumental fragility, a matchstick cathedral of sound that ended not with despair or even resignation, but a feeling of renewal that paralleled the work's opening.
No visceral thrills and no tugged heartstrings - Haitink elevated this already magisterial work to the realm of the spiritual.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Haitink - Barbican, 14 March 2009
Mozart Symphony No 35 in D major 'Haffner' Debussy La mer Beethoven Symphony No 7 in A major
This concert was the first one of a two day flying visit from the Concertgebouw and their venerable Conductor Laureate Bernard Haitink, recently turned 80 and still going strong. Or strong-ish anyway. The steps up to the stage were clearly a bit of a trial, as they were for Thomas Quasthoff a few days ago. And they're not the first - isn't it about time the Barbican gave a little thought to stage access for its many less sprightly guests?
The opening Haffner Symphony was as efficient as you'd expect from the Concertgebouw, but rather charmless, and with that introspective quality that small ensembles marooned in the middle of the Barbican stage often have. I felt more like an eavesdropper than a spectator.
A sturdy and surprisingly hard-driven La Mer showed them at closer to their best, not a detail submerged beneath the rolling rhythms. And there are no weak links in this orchestra - the playing was as near flawless as you could hope for.
Haitink's take on Beethoven's Seventh was fleet and decisive. His snappy phrasing was warmed by the natural glow of the Concertgebouw strings and underpinned by that itchy beat. There was no pause for breath - even the usually monumental Allegretto was light-footed. As the band tumbled into the last movement at breakneck pace there was a palpable sense that some were struggling just to keep up. Somehow it held together. But that was the only point where Haitink's ideas felt imposed rather than organic, and his faithful observance of all the repetitions lent a perfect balance.
Despite an immediate standing ovation there was to be no ercore, but perhaps just as well - that Beethoven would have been an impossible act to follow.
Standing ovation for Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw:
Next up is a new double bill of Dido and Aeneas with Acis and Galatea opening 31 March. Choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose work demonstrates little musical sensibility, is the odd choice of director. Sarah Connolly, Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies and Danielle de Niese make their ROH debuts.
On 13 March there's a one-off performance of Verdi's Messa da Requiem. Antonio Pappano conducts Barbara Frittoli, Olga Borodina, Piotr Beczala and Ildar Abdrazakov. Sold out, but check for returns towards the date.
At ENO, there's a revival of one of their better recent productions, David Alden's Jenùfa with Amanda Roocroft.
Prom 55: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink - Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2007
The stage was set for this performance in more ways than one - we arrived in the arena to find the familiar paddling pool and cuddly dinosaur (left) vanished from the centre of the audience area, and a low, roped boxing ring stage set up in its place. Were Haitink and Abbado about to duke it out for the World Maestro Championship (Senior Division)?
No - enquiries revealed it had been set up in advance for Monday afternoon's children's performance. So why not wait till Monday, and leave space to accommodate a full-complement audience for tonight's sell-out concert? My neighbour cynically but probably correctly suggested the BBC didn't fancy paying the bank holiday overtime.
I was hoping tonight's performance would show a livelier side to Haitink than the previous night's. The opening Parsifal Act 1 Prelude was not promising. Mystery and wonder were nowhere to be found in this stolid reading.
Haitink sped seamlessly into a passage from Act 3 of Parsifal, the 'Good Friday Music' with barely half a second's breath. Although stodge was still the order of the day here, it was at least partially redeemed by some exquisite haunting oboe work. But if this is a taste of his forthcoming Covent Garden Parsifal, I'll be bringing my knitting.
There was a sense of routine in the very grounded reading of Debussy's Nocturnes too, with measured restraint replacing the expected shimmering impressionistic textures.
The other Debussy work of the evening, Six épigraphes antiques, has a long genesis. It's a relatively recent arrangement, by Rudolf Escher, of a set of Debussy piano duets, themselves in turn based on material from Debussy's earlier flute, harp and celesta incidental music for Pierre Louÿs' poems Chansons de Bilitis.
The programme sniffily notes that "the monochrome, percussive medium of the piano duet[!?*!$! send Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire round with a baseball bat...] was hardly more than a means of presenting the material". However Escher's arrangement is like an immaculately faked painting. Trademark Debussyisms like rippling strings and sinuous oboe solos are stuffed in to the point of pastiche. It is hard to listen to it as anything other than an efficient academic exercise. That said, the Concertgebouw dropped some of their earlier brawn and gave a thoughtful, reflective reading.
The most impressive performances of the evening came at the end, with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and the encore, the Prelude from Act 3 of Lohengrin. Seatbelts were unbuckled and rockets lit as the Concertgebouw finally let go and unleashed some passion and momentum. If Haitink can coax the ROH orchestra into this sort of performance for Parsifal in December, we could have some memorable nights.
Prom 53: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink and Prom 54: Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Aimard - Royal Albert Hall, 24 August 2007
The programme rightly notes that Bruckner's 8th Symphony contains "moments of luminous splendour - not least the ending - they tend to stand out amid darkness, mystery and grim reminders of mortality". And so it was with this performance. Flashes of colour illuminated great yawning swathes of beige.
Although there were moments of pure inspiration, it was mostly hard work, a real effort to listen to. At times I wondered if the orchestra was simply tired - I understand they had a very tight schedule getting to London. That luxurious melted chocolate sound of theirs certainly seemed to lack a little of its usual sheen, though technically they were as ever spot-on, with some outstanding displays of individual virtuosity. The last movement was especially pallid, though the big finale did grab the attention.
Perhaps I was expecting too much. This concert came hot on the heels of two really outstanding performances earlier in the week. It would have been hard for anyone to match the passion of Dudamel's Venezuelans, or the elegiac intimacy of Abbado's Mahler. But the chilly efficiency of Haitink's interpretation left little room for any kind of feeling. What a difference from the Concertgebouw's last London visit, when under the baton of Mariss Jansons at the Barbican it was not difficult to think them the greatest orchestra in the world.
In contrast, Pierre-Laurent Aimard's sparsely attended late night concert with the superb Mahler Chamber Orchestra was a delight from start to finish.
Conducting Haydn's Symphony No. 102 batonless, with graceful air-piano movements, he moulded great sweeping legato phrases with a romantic gloss and a dynamic sense of propulsion.
Despite vibrato-less strings, it was fundamentally an unusually forward-looking interpretation. It sounded almost Beethovien, undoubtedly Aimard's intention judging from his take on the Beethoven concerto which came later.
Aimard's piano programmes often place Ligeti alongside the classical and romantic masters, a conjunction which works remarkably well, illuminating both. Tonight the piano was moved centre stage for Aimard to perform a solo selection of Ligeti Etudes, some of which Ligeti wrote specifically for Aimard, while the orchestra sat around him in horseshoe formation and listened attentively.
The neatly structured sequence traced a path through the shimmering multilayers of Entrelacs, to the jerky rhythms of Fém, Der Zauberlehrling's impossibly rapid, trapped trills, and the rambling fifths of Cordes vides, ending with the fearsome chromatic Escher staircase of L'escalier du Diable. The audience remained silent, transfixed during the lengthily-sustained final note. As one day-ticketer said with dropped jaw as the applause began, f*** me. Aimard playing Ligeti can have that effect. His precise and measured articulation of dazzlingly fast passages and his keen sense of the multi-rhythmic lines can make it sound as if several pianos are playing at once.
For the final work, Beethoven's second Piano Concerto, Aimard's piano was moved around so that he remained in the centre of the orchestra, but with his back to the audience, and a kind of clear shield was attached to the piano to reflect the sound better. You can see it in the photo below - it's the dark stripe behind the scores.
Jumping up for some more air-piano work with his expressive hands when he could, conducting with his eyes alone when the requirements of the score tied him to the piano, he gave an exuberant reading of this early concerto.
Alternately drawing out its satisfyingly tidy Haydnesque aspects and splashing joyfully through the virtuoso solos, his elegant fluency and sheer brilliance were a delight. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra matched him every step of the way in technical flawlessness and sheer enthusiasm. For me this was the best 30 minutes of this year's Proms.
Mahler Chamber Orchestra as viewed from the arena:
Both concerts are available for the next week here - bear in mind BBC recording techniques change the original sound balance.