Slow introductions to symphonic works often have a mesmerising quality, a sense of the ground gradually being prepared for something tumultuous, the curtain held back tantalisingly until the spectacular reveal. They can harbour musical surprises too, as in the case of Mozart’s Prague Symphony which, despite its length, manages to do without a minuet, and Schumann’s Second, where the scherzo comes straight after the opening movement and also incorporates two different trio sections.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bernard Haitink conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

When Bernard Haitink is on the podium there are a number of things that you can immediately take for granted. Quite apart from an absence of theatrical point-making, there is much to savour: a beautiful balancing of all the orchestral sections, a warm translucency to the sound and careful gradations in dynamics. His partners in this afternoon Prom were the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, with whom an already close relationship has deepened over the years.

With hardly any concessions to period practices, this Prague started with gently sighing strings set against the exquisite blend of the woodwind. Before the end of the slow introduction there are implied cries of pain from the upper strings, one of those remarkable instances of foreshadowing, in this case of his Don Giovanni just a year later. Here the playing was unfailingly stylish, but the drama and the darker undercurrents which inhabit this symphony were underplayed, the obsessive character to the string playing kept firmly in check. The glass of Burgundy was being savoured in small sips rather than eager gulps, the palate never overwhelmed with powerful spirit. Much the same qualities were in evidence in the slow movement, with hardly a shadow falling across the textures. In the finale Haitink took due account of the Presto marking, with fleet-footed strings and occasional timpani-led dramatic flourishes, but there could be no doubt about the way he viewed the classical proportions of this piece. Very much a case of Mozart sunny side up.

Isabelle Faust with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Isabelle Faust with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Isabelle Faust, the soloist in Mozart’s G major violin concerto, sought a collegiate approach, eschewing any hint of flamboyance. Working very closely with a slimmed-down string complement – the only additional colour comes from pairs of flutes, oboes and horns – and using very little vibrato she underlined its classical elegance throughout. In the rondo finale the playing was light and bright, the rhythms of the folksong which gave rise to the concerto’s Strassburg epithet sounding at times like the chirping of birdsong. Carefree it certainly was, but the last ounce of joie de vivre was missing. The highlight, however, was the slow movement which mirrored the still and sultry atmosphere of a summer afternoon. Faust doesn’t really have a big sound but she uses her silvery tone most intelligently, choosing to reveal her personality in small dabs of colour. Each re-statement of the initial theme was articulated with the same quiet grace and sense of poise. Like an angel’s voice whispering in the ear this movement achieved an extraordinary degree of timelessness.  

What works in Mozart doesn’t always work in Schumann. There was just a hint of heavy clouds on the distant horizon during the slow introduction to the first movement of the Second Symphony, the wind sounding quite grave and the trumpets injecting a touch of anxiety. Early on in the Allegro section there is a sighing quality, followed by a typically nervous obsession in the repeated string figurations. Where Mozart is Apollo, Schumann is frequently Dionysus. Not in Haitink’s book, however. There was little of the troubled spirit which clouded Schumann’s outlook on life by the time he came to write this symphony. I have always felt that the scherzo is the musical equivalent of having itching powder thrust down the front of one’s shirt. One can of course maintain a stiff upper lip and ride out the discomfort, but that simply leads to a prosaic view of something which is preternaturally Romantic.

Part of the highly original writing in this movement is the way the first and second violins – here seated antiphonally, as they should be in all performances of this work – chatter furiously at each other, like two fish-wives in the middle of a heated argument. That would have been, I suspect, far too déclassé for this interpretation, which underlined classical poise to the detriment of the manic undertones. Once experienced live, however, you immediately know what Schumann had in mind.

And then a minor miracle occurred in the slow movement. Having recently heard Haitink performing great valedictory movements by Bruckner and Mahler, I know how magisterially he can shape long string lines, with just the right amount of counterpoint from wind and brass. So it was here. And in the coda to the finale he gave us unalloyed exuberance in C major, with resplendent trumpets and trombones greeting their close cousins from the Rhenish Symphony.