Bernard Haitink turned 87 last month; Murray Perahia will turn 69 in a few weeks. Between them they brought a lifetime of experience, frequent collaboration, and an evergreen musicianship to bear on a program combining an elegant, vital, sparklingly lyrical performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with a majestic, ticking-time-bomb reading of Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major. No raging against the fading of the light here. The Indian summer sun shines bright and warm on both these remarkable musicians. The absence of the basic black ensemble of mandarin-collared shirt and pants, which makes so many conductors and soloists look like domestics from a bon ton Milan household, announced that, sartorially as well as musically, Perahia and Haitink would be “kickin’ it old school”.

Bernard Haitink and Murray Perahia with the Boston Symphony © Michael Blanchard
Bernard Haitink and Murray Perahia with the Boston Symphony
© Michael Blanchard

Perahia has battled hand problems off and on since the 1990s. Surgery and periods of prescribed rest have kept him from performing for years at a time. Since returning from his most recent hiatus in 2007, he has shown a much more dramatic profile technically and interpretatively. Previously known primarily as a sensitive poet of the keyboard, he now combines lyrical expressivity and the ability to maintain beauty of tone across a wide dynamic range with more dramatic attacks and sonorities reminiscent at times of his great friend and mentor, Vladimir Horowitz. The concerto’s opening chords were like whispers from the piano, inviting both orchestra and audience into its confidence. Polished and rhythmically crisp phrasing, light pedaling, accurate fingering hands never rising above the fallboard, and supplely voiced chords anchored Perahia’s performance, sometimes chiding, sometimes defiant, sometimes cajoling in its conversation with the orchestra. He made Beethoven’s cadenzas sound improvisatory and summited with panache in difficult passages like the Andante’s right hand trills with the left crossing over and back executing runs. Clarity, transparency, and clean articulation were answered with the same from Haitink and the orchestra. The fluency and eloquence of their give and take were testimony to the formidable degree of empathy between pianist and conductor, manifest most vividly in the transition from the moonlit repose of the close of the Andante to the teasing, bordering on taunting tit for tat of the Rondo finale.

Haitink mentioned in a recent interview that he had given Mahler’s First a rest for fear his performances would become perfunctory. Perfunctory wasn’t even in the same zip code as Symphony Hall Thursday night. All of Haitink’s strengths as a conductor – fine tuned dynamics, a feeling for the line and architecture of a piece, the clarity of texture and balance he brings to the orchestra’s sections, his attention to the inner voices in a score and the subtleties of its orchestration – contrived to give full voice to the elation, doubt, disillusion, triumph and mordant humor of Mahler’s symphonic debut, not as an overwrought series of neurotic outbursts, but as an implacable ebb and flow of tension marked by expansive tempi which finally erupts in a blazing, jubilant climax. Most remarkable was the transition from the third to the fourth movement, so transparent that the rarely heard swipe strokes on the gong sounded clearly as the music spiraled into silence before what Mahler described as “the cry of an anguished heart” which triggers the finale.

Haitink prefers a European seating arrangement which puts the violas at the lip of the stage to his right and the cellos next to them. For the Mahler, he also split the seven French horns called for from the rest of the brass placing them on the opposite side of the stage in front of the percussion. When they rose, as Mahler directed, to play the final 76 bars, his “chorale resounding over everything” made a powerful effect. Haitink holds the endowed position of Conductor Emeritus, but the orchestra paid him its highest compliment by twice refusing to rise when beckoned, adding their foot-stomping and bow-tapping to the standing ovation from the hall. He’ll be back next season to roar again, shortly after his 88th birthday. Centanni, maestro!