Sunday 15 March 2009

Haitink and the Concertgebouw, Part II - Bruckner, Schumann and Perahia

I was nearly caught out by this weekend's second concert from the Concertgebouw - it was an afternoon matinee and I was expecting a normal evening kick-off. Still, such starts are remarkably civilised and allow one to type up a review without staying up into the small hours of the morning and enable dinner to be eaten at a civilised time.

Sunday's programme contained just two works. In the first half was Schumann's piano concerto in A minor, op.54. The soloist was Murray Perahia, very highly regarded, but someone with whom I've never quite managed to connect. I bought his cycle of the Mozart piano concerti with the English Chamber Orchestra, which receives rave reviews and a Penguin Guide rosette and yet fails to grab me at all (excepting the first four, which aren't solely Mozart). Indeed, they initially had me thinking that perhaps the works were not for me, until I came across the likes of Barenboim, Brendel, Uchida and Zacharias. Listening to this performance, I struggled to understand why I don't like him. Technically it was a strong performance and he didn't go in for the excessive thumping I can't stand. However, for whatever reason, his playing simply doesn't seem to speak to me. Others will not (and did not appear to) have this problem. The Concertgebouw played superbly. And yet, something was lacking here too. I think Schumann, like Mendelssohn, benefits from plenty of oomph and emotion from the conductor, which is why I prefer the recordings of Furtwangler or Bernstein.

After the interval it was the turn of Bruckner and the ninth. Haitink took the start fairly slowly and the orchestra delivered perhaps their finest playing of the weekend. The best moments came with the sheer excitement they delivered in the scherzo, Haitink holding his pauses to good effect. The outer movements were a little less successful. They didn't seem to have quite the flow that was there when Volkov and the BBC Scottish played them in Glasgow recently. Haitink did bring out the Wagnerian themes wonderfully though, reminding me of the things I love about his Bavarian Ring cycle (hobbled by Eva Marton's police siren like Brunnhilde) which offers so much orchestral beauty.

Of course, it is probably true that the Concertgebouw are a finer ensemble than the BBC Scottish, and certainly their beautiful and rich sound is a wonder to hear. However, the gap is very much closer than some might imagine (and I don't just think that's a personal bias for a local team).

Often, when I write reviews, I single out one or two sections of players who have especially impressed me. I'm conscious that I haven't done that with either this afternoon's or last night's programme. During the Bruckner I realised why. The Concertgebouw is one of the most superbly balanced ensembles it has been my pleasure to hear. Nobody stands out particularly because all are playing so well. It is a treat to hear them, and you should seize the chance if you get it. They return in December for programmes that include Brahms' fourth symphony and Mahler's resurrection. The main difference will be that the conductor then will be Mariss Jansons, one who I tend to be more in sympathy with and who is, in my view, one of the finest Mahlerians around today. I can't wait. (Now if only Mr Mills could entice them up to Edinburgh for the festival, and we could hear them in the better acoustic of the Usher Hall....)

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