This was Bernard Haitink’s second appearance at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra in under a week and which mostly drew on his association with the Austro-German orchestral tradition with which this octogenarian has built his reputation. Happily this programme included a contemporary work by Thomas Adès that linked Couperin to the present while embracing Brahms and Mendelssohn, although without any meaningful connection.

Veronika Eberle © Felix Broede
Veronika Eberle
© Felix Broede

Three Studies from Couperin by Adès filled the first 15 minutes in what was an exercise in transferring sonorities from one medium to another, in this case harpsichord to chamber orchestra. Commissioned by the Basel Chamber Orchestra in 2006, these studies recreate Couperin’s soundworld, amplifying the 18th-century original by (as Adès wrote) “delicately altering the orchestration or by adding shadows and haloes to the parts, so imitating and extending the techniques of touch and registration a performer at the harpsichord would use”.

Shifting timbres of string, woodwind (including alto and bass flute) and marimba added autumnal colouring to the repeated phrase patterns and quiet restraint in “Les Amusement”, while the more animated “Les Tours de passe-passe” was vividly illuminated by bowed and plucked strings, smooth and staccato woodwind and rototoms. In the hushed solemnity of “Âme en-Peine”, Couperin’s expressive dissonances were played with unfailing sensitivity by the LSO.

After a platform alteration an expanded LSO returned for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, its solo part taken by Germany’s rising star Veronika Eberle who made her debut with these players in 2014 with Simon Rattle. Now working with Haitink for the first time she fashioned a performance that combined faultless musicianship with a commanding technique that left you dazed. Security of intonation was second to none and her tonal variety, whether willowy or voluptuous, was always at the service of the music. Runs were produced fluently in the opening movement as too were the delivery of some lofty pianissimo that took your breath away. There were moments when dynamics were barely audible but every phrase carried effortlessly and orchestral balance was never in doubt.

Her sense of poise continued in the tender Andante, (as did her head-down approach)and yielded further intimacies from her “Dragonetti” Stradivarius in a relaxed and wonderfully expressive rendition that kept the ear entranced. She drew on fresh reserves for the closing movement which, whilst not as fast as some accounts, demonstrated an incomparable partnership between soloist and the LSO. Eberle’s playing was undeniably of the first rank, unblemished and of crystalline purity.

If matters had coalesced with complete ease in the Mendelssohn they did so again in Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major but in a performance that lacked intensity. Haitink gave an account with a “straight bat” that placed the composer squarely as a classical symphonist. Throughout the first movement the string section purred; violins sweet-sounding in the opening theme and violas and ‘cellos glowing in the second. Elsewhere timpani were to the fore and woodwind and brass always well balanced. No matter how efficient everything was, its overall trajectory felt unsmiling and severe.

The chamber sonorities that occupy the second movement were nicely caught with ear catching solo horn and woodwind and by the Allegretto I had warmed to this account, where Haitink drew playing from the LSO of matchless luminosity. From here conductor and players (woodwind were superb) found the lightness of touch that can often elude performances of Brahms. The Finale was a grand, if not edge-of-the-seat affair, tempi certainly fast but the con spirito largely absent and only in those closing bars (one of the most rousing conclusions to any symphony) did this performance stir the adrenaline.