Bernard Haitink, the London Symphony Orchestra, and an all-Beethoven programme. What could be better? Sunday night’s concert brought together the orchestra and its associated London Symphony Chorus to perform a programme of both lesser-known works – the Leonore Overture no.2 and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage – and that imperious, uplifting edifice of Enlightenment humanism and universal brotherhood, the Ninth Symphony. It was largely what one expects from Haitink: just the music, given with as much clarity and beauty as an orchestra can muster, something the LSO more than happily provided. However, an unwillingness to glory in some of the more extravagantly weird moments of the Ninth sometimes gave the impression of overfamiliarity, lacking the freshness such a musical rallying cry needs.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann © Monika Ritterhaus
Hanno Müller-Brachmann
© Monika Ritterhaus

Leonore no.2 is an intriguing glance into Beethoven’s mind; Haitink has expressed his affection for its glimpse into the composer’s ‘workshop’. It’s a little shapeless, more an exciting rush through a gamut of themes than its taut, powerful successor, the often-heard Leonore no. 3. There are still plenty of opportunities for orchestral splendour, though, and it was the LSO winds, as they would for the whole concert, who really shone. Rachel Gough’s bassoon section showed marvellous sensitivity in their pianissimo mutterings, and Gareth Davies’ tone was irreproachable above the wind section’s lustrous glow, with perfect intonation and blend. Lustre was certainly the word for the orchestral sound, Haitink eschewing strongly marked string accents in favour of ingratiating warmth; occasionally, slightly overbearing timps and brass meant this saw the strings lost, particularly in tuttis, but dynamics and ensemble were faultless. The great minor outburst before the finale regained the energy lost as the overture rumbled along at a slightly louche tempo, and the offstage trumpet calls really did seem to call the whole group to attention for a thrilling close.

Beethoven’s response to Goethe’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is a little perplexing. Where Mendelssohn’s well-known version is a decent length with no special requirements, it’s not difficult to see why Beethoven’s seven-minute piece for full orchestra and large chorus – with minimal orchestral detail and some truly hair-raising vocal writing – might struggle to find its way onto programmes. The London Symphony Chorus found an affecting, bass-led profundity in the opening depiction of the water’s “deep stillness”, and the fully harmonised return of this text was particularly moving. Beethoven’s idea of a “vast expanse”, though, seems to be the vast expanse of time the poor sopranos must spend on a top A, with no preparation; suffice to say some of them did not quite make it. At any rate, the Prosperous Voyage was delivered with admirable lightfootedness, and an irresistible sense of joy from orchestra and chorus.

So, to the evening’s main event: the Ninth. Much of this piece’s reputation comes from its mythos as “the greatest piece ever written”, its length, and its message of universal brotherhood – who, after all, would argue with that? However, it does need a great deal of input from the conductor; there’s a fair amount of music that isn’t so inspired, particularly in the first and last movements, and the truly bonkers moments of orchestration and harmony must be brought out to make an effective impact. Also, although the first three movements are in a sense just preparation for the finale, which references and rejects their material, for the journey to be effective they must be powerfully characterised.

Unfortunately, Haitink’s clean and clear approach didn’t quite manage this. Although the first movement’s opening was spine-tinglingly quiet, with beautiful moments from the winds, and captured the fundamental darkness of those inescapable martial rhythms, the movement’s long chordal passages and rising repetitions started to drag and to feel slightly perfunctory, something that would plague the first three movements. The scherzo’s long melodies of short notes had life and bounce, but no sense of phrase or of fun, the tempo having dropped noticeably after the first few bars. So with the hymnlike slow movement, where the firsts’ gradually unfolding golden strings of triplets were only ever a decoration to an unchanging, plodding central tune in the winds. Though it was all beautifully played, it never felt special. Even when the orchestra takes up the Ode to Joy theme in the finale, and gradually builds up to a tutti, there was no intensity, no sense of real joy, just the sonic beauty one has come to expect from the LSO.

Gareth Davies and the winds were still playing a starring role, with Davies’s articulation matchless throughout, especially in the more elfin moments of the scherzo. The four soloists increased the energy levels noticeable, Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s rich clarion call full of life and light, while Erin Wall’s leadership of the quartet matchless even in those moments which can so often turn into a shouting match. The audience was on its feet for the exultantly bombastic ending, but I must admit I came away feeling a little cold.