When it’s a significant birthday, why limit the celebrations to just one day? Or even one city? Bernard Haitink’s 90th birthday bash with the London Symphony Orchestra continued from Sunday’s Austrian pairing of Mozart and Bruckner with a jaunt into Bohemia’s woods and fields. Dvořák’s pastoral Violin Concerto gave way to the rustic delights of the most amiable of Mahler’s Wunderhorn symphonies, the Fourth. It’s a programme they take to Paris on Monday before repeating it again at the Barbican on Thursday. Haitink and the LSO like to party hard.

Bernard Haitink
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Haitink looks frail and he approached the podium gingerly. For much of the evening he perched on a stool. But his beat is still firm and precise, never raising the baton too high for dramatic effect; that’s never been his way. A lot of the time, you don’t notice Haitink at all and that’s his greatest asset. Behind the benign smile, he directs firmly, but nevers gets in the way of the music. There’s never a moment where his gestures nudge the audience in the ribs with a “Look what I did there. Aren’t I clever?” Haitink is always a servant to the score rather than imposing himself as its master.

Isabelle Faust has long been a champion of Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor. It’s a work which needs its musical missionaries. Joseph Joachim, the concerto’s intended dedicatee, dismissed it out of hand, wanting something along more classical lines, just like his mate Johannes Brahms had composed for him the year before. It’s not a blazing vehicle for the soloist, but it is rhapsodic, absolutely packed with melody. Faust’s sweet amber tone poured itself into every phrase, entwined in intimate first movement duet with Olivier Stankiewicz’ luscious oboe. There was just enough al dente bite in Faust’s delivery to ride the orchestra, which was beautifully balanced. The Adagio ma non troppo was tinged with misty-eyed melancholy, especially the yearning string melody that sounds as if it comes straight out of Rusalka. Faust is well-matched to Haitink’s approach to music-making; self-contained, with few extravagant movements. Yet the finale hopped, danced and skipped along like a Czech furiant, with woodwinds chuckling like one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances.

Haitink’s Mahler has always been unfussy and unhistrionic, touched by great humanity. And so it was with this affectionate account of the Fourth, a ramble in the sweet mountain air. He allowed the score to breathe so that everything flowed organically – unforced, but teeming with detail. In this, Haitink was aided by the most characterful woodwind team in London, limpid flutes and juicy clarinet tone especially beguiling. The powerful LSO strings were tamed by the tiniest of finger trembles from the conductor, portamentos always the decent side of tasteful, the whole thing grounded by the gruff grumbles of the terrific double bass section. Neil Percy teased the sleigh ride along buoyantly and Katy Woolley’s burnished horn solos were golden and ripe. Woolley was recently announced as the new Principal Horn of Haitink’s old band, the Royal Concertgebouw. Lucky Amsterdammers.

Haitink’s timing was exquisite, the wind-up from the dreamy horn reverie into the stringendo which propels the first movement to its rumbustious close perfectly weighted. The great climax at the end of the third movement was tear-jerklingly joyous. Soprano Sally Matthews, a late step-in, initially pecked at her vocal line a little too much – her German indistinct – but she guided us through Mahler’s celestial banquet with joy and floated her mezza voce in the final verse tenderly. As birthday parties go, this was gentle but joyous, Haitink abashed at the adulation. Catch the continued festivities next week in Paris or London. Or both.