Sunday 15 March 2009

The world's best orchestra? - Haitink and the Concertgebouw play Mozart, Debussy and Beethoven

I should really stop banging on about that list of greatest orchestras that appeared in a certain well known classical magazine. However, it did put the Concertgebouw top and I've never before heard them in the flesh, though I have been impressed with many of their recordings (Bernstein conducting Mahler's first symphony, Jansons doing Strauss's Alpensinfonie and Haitink conducting Mahler's third being three that stand out especially in my memory). However, they have been high on my list of orchestras I want to hear one day. It's therefore been nice to cross them off today.

My one regret about the programme is that there was no Mahler and there is none tomorrow, and, with the wonderful richness of their sound and especially their wind, I think they have a particular affinity for the composer.

Saturday's programme started with Mozart's Haffner symphony, K385. This was very nicely played and Haitink took it at a fairly brisk tempo. While it was very enjoyable, there was little by way of the wow moments which I feel are one of the key markers of orchestral greatness. My only quibble is that I would have liked the winds more prominently balanced, but this may well be the fault of the acoustic.

The orchestra's full forces then filled out the stage for Debussy's La Mer. By a curious quirk of fate, the last time I heard this it was being played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of whom I'm immensely fond, and who share their chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, with the Concertgebouw. I said then that I don't care for the piece. I'm afraid Haitink and the Concertgebouw didn't change my mind. That's not to say there wasn't some beautiful and, indeed, some wowing playing. There most certainly was and the score provides some moments for an ensemble to really show off. Unfortunately, the bottom line is that I find the whole work a little banal. (This problem may now have been replaced as during the interval someone told me about a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch, which I sadly cannot locate on the internet, where Cook explained that it was all about the composer's silver haired mother and her tea trolley. That's what has happened with the main theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake where all I can hear is Graham Garden singing I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts, that one's I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue's fault.) The work's other problem is that, try as I might, it doesn't evoke the slightest spark of the sea. Contrast this with Peter Grimes, whose virtually every bar seems imbued with its presence, beauty or power.

After the interval it was Beethoven and the seventh symphony. Haitink has recently won plaudits for his Beethoven, most notably with the LSO Live cycle. That hasn't completely grabbed me. Sitting somewhere I have some notes on it waiting to be typed up into a review. However, the short version is that I think the disc of the fourth and eighth symphonies is phenomenal and amongst the finest recordings of either but that the rest is fairly unremarkable. I've also heard some pretty memorable sevenths over the years, most recently Mackerras/SCO but also a thrilling reading from Daniel Harding at Aldeburgh six years ago. Haitink's view didn't entirely grab me. He is generally a conductor who doesn't go in for a lot of emotion. This can be a good thing: Leonard Bernstein sometimes went far too far the other way. But it can also feel a little cold as was the case here. The first movement was somewhat to solemn and grand, and while this works well in the eroica, in this work I don't find it convincing; I prefer sheer unadulterated joy. The transition to the main theme of the first movement should have unbearable tension, it didn't. His approach did suit the slow movement much better though. It was extremely beautiful and further enhanced by the orchestra's wonderfully rich playing. But the last two movements shared the first's problems. Certainly he took the finale at quite a lick, and yet it just didn't quite seem to sweep me away with excitement. When Mackerras played it, he left me on the edge of my seat and exhausted.

I was in a minority though as the reception was very warm (and a number of people stood), though I could hear a sound from one quarter that sounded like booing (I think the acoustic must have been tricking my ears, because that makes no sense).

So, are they the best in the world? Well, I don't like singling one out at the best of times. They do have a very special sound, and one that I think is unique. I had worried that the Barbican's notorious acoustic would remove this richness. Certainly I think hearing them in the Usher Hall or the Concertgebouw would have been better, but their special flavour was still very much in evidence. There's no doubt they play very well indeed, but so do many others. They did not absolutely blow me away as other ensembles have (but that may be the repertoire).

They're are here again tomorrow for a programme that includes Schumann's piano concerto (with Murray Perahia) and Bruckner's ninth. I hadn't realised when I was sorting out my tickets out this year, but that means two Bruckner nines in almost as many weeks; I wonder how they will compare to the BBC Scottish. Interestingly, Runnicles ranks the latter amongst the finest ensembles in the world. Of course, Haitink is a fine Brucknerian..... Watch this space.

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