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Haitink's Beethoven

MALCOLM MILLER was at the second
of three April concerts at
London's Barbican Hall


Anyone presuming that the era of great conductors is over had better go and hear Haitink's Beethoven, the symphonic cycle underway at the Barbican which is being billed as the London Symphony Orchestra's first Beethoven cycle in 21 years. Happily, since the seats are currently under huge demand, each concert is also being recorded on the LSO Live label. On Monday 24 April 2006 the programme featured that most famous of symphonies, the fifth (remember the old joke about the man asking in a record shop for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony only to be told 'we've got it by Tchaikovsky!'?), along with the Fidelio Overture and the 8th Symphony, a veritable feast of echt-Beethoven, so that one was at the edge of one's seat waiting to see what Haitink would do. As a veteran opera conductor, it is not surprising that the control of drama and character are paramount in his vision, alongside a dynamic sensitivity to structure and pacing. Haitink allows the orchestra full rein as if driving a team of horses at a gallop, yet there is also a sense of relaxed freedom, with tension building sequences always crystal clear, riveting unanimity of note-onsets, pindrop silences at pregnant moments, countered by remarkable radiance in lyrical moments.

The Fidelio Overture burst forth with ebullience, the immediate arresting pause creating a palpable vacuum waiting for the next note. As the movement got underway, the broad feminine theme was lovingly caressed in the strings and wind, while the retransition was one of the most exciting I have heard in this concise work which gained in stature. The eighth symphony is often maligned as a retracting of the expansion of the middle period, though its structure is predicated on a vastly expanded coda, and syntax of sharp contrasts that point forward to the late style. In Haitink's reading, the first movement's long arching phrases could be heard clearly intensifying in broad linear sweeps, the contrast of the lyrical and the dramatic underscored. The Allegretto was just full of poise and delicacy, the ostinato patterns conveyed in clockwork precision, while in the third movement's trio, he seemed to milk the romantic richness of the harmony. The finale abounded in wit and suppleness, the rubato of the first theme beautifully shaped at each appearance. Haitink's choreography on the podium is such that the left hand is constantly alert to the individual phrasing of instruments, often wiggling around to instill a sense of suspense in the strings, while the right keeps just the right buoyancy and electricity to the beat.

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Copyright © 27 April 2006 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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