The London Symphony Orchestra presented the themes of the first movement of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto very nicely indeed, benefiting from the clarity, moderation and wisdom with which a lifetime of experience has endowed their conductor for this concert. The string sound was beautiful and full but with plenty of room for detail, and the woodwinds gave their gentle interjections with perfectly judged crescendos. All was right with the world and it sounded as though we were in for a nice, comfortable concerto as a prelude to the mighty Bruckner symphony to follow.

Maria João Pires  ©  Eduardo Gageiro
Maria João Pires
©

Enter Maria João Pires, and suddenly the game is raised and it becomes apparent that what is being developed is something far from comfortable, and very special. She found a spiky angularity and physical strength in the piano part, fracturing the Mozart–Haydn mould from which this concerto had emerged. But her assertive approach didn’t fight the orchestra, it used it as a springboard for the music to leap into realms rarely visited in concerto performances. The uncompromising vigour of her interpretation was revealed untrammelled in the manic cadenza of the first movement, that threw proportion to the wind – but the heart of the performance was in the extraordinary closing pages of the slow movement where time stopped as she picked each note of the descending phrase one after another out of the air, listened for the reply of the soft, sustained strings, and returned twice more with increasingly elaborated versions, the movement closing in rapt silence – and then off, without a pause into the Rondo-finale, energised by the release of the profound tension that had been created. I thought this was music-making of the highest quality, and had that been all there was in the concert we would have had no reason to feel short-changed.

But the second half was equally trenchant! Bruckner knew the Ninth was to be his last symphony, the Adagio contains a descending chorale for Wagner tubas that he called his “farewell to life”, and indeed he died while he was working on the finale. In an interview printed in the BBC Proms programme when Haitink conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in this same symphony last year (David’s review here), Haitink talks of the unfinished finale. He doesn’t think it should be completed by other hands: “You have to respect life, but you also have to respect death”, is his view.

Respect for death seemed to be at the heart of this performance. Haitink set a steady beat as though for some grand processional – so steady, in fact, that the symphony lasted nearly ten minutes longer than it did when he recorded it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra nearly half a century ago. Bruckner marks the first movement to be played “feierlich” – solemn, grave, ceremonious – and Haitink ensured the work was laid out in front of us like a vast dark pageant, almost as a ritual death march. Bruckner’s other marking is “misterioso” – something very difficult to achieve in the Barbican acoustic. There were no moments of hushed, rapt pianissimo, no distant ecclesiastic echo, the tread was heavy throughout and the mystery that of mortality itself, clearly confronted, rather than the misty evasions of impressionistic tone-poetry.

Throughout, the LSO played with total conviction, the brass overwhelming in their assault on the shattering climaxes of the first movement, the indomitable hammering of a steady-paced and brutal Scherzo, and the final dissonant catastrophe that crowns the Adagio. Thereafter the Wagner tubas and horns gave powerful expression to the heart-rending, baleful sorrow of it all as they wound down to the final moments of calm. The woodwind played their solos with a rigour consonant with Haitink’s general approach – no Mahlerian expressive subjectivity, nor even did they dance in the little Scherzo motive for oboe and then flute: it would have been inappropriate. At times the orchestral colour would have benefited from more forward woodwind, and the wild skirling of flute and clarinet in the trio was only just audible. The strings played their weird scampering trio theme quite heavily, ghoulish certainly, but nothing spectral here. Their opening gesture in the Adagio, where the violins leap a ninth, is often disfigured by much sliding but tonight there was absolute clarity, the briefest of separation between notes allowing the players to attack them cleanly and keep the rhythm steady. It was an approach that eschewed any sense that the music expressed the composer’s individual heartbreak, preferring to lay before us a more sober, objective human tragedy.

Maybe it takes some maturity to understand and present this extraordinary symphony this way and make it so overwhelmingly powerful as it was on this occasion. It was very moving – indeed, absolutely shattering. Haitink, Pires and the LSO had created an occasion, thoroughly secular, but potent enough to leave you with much to savour and important things to think about.

Bernard Haitink and Maria João PiresKen Ward2013-02-17Ken Ward reviews Haitink, Pires, LSO play Beethoven 2nd Piano Concerto & Bruckner's 9th at the Barbican4