While Stanisław Skrowaczewski, approaching his 90th birthday, was tackling Bruckner’s Symphony no. 3 in D minor in London with the LPO, here in Berlin, Bernard Haitink, approaching his 85th birthday, gave three performances of Bruckner’s Fourth with the Berlin Philharmonic. With the precedent of Günter Wand and Georg Tintner, and the continuing career as a Brucknerian of distinction of Herbert Blomstedt at 86, one might be led to think that Bruckner is “a country for old men”. It certainly seems that as conductors grow older, and perhaps have less anxiety to prove themselves, they gain the patience and humility to let Bruckner’s music proceed at its own pace and speak without those self-conscious interventions by which rising younger conductors seek to put their mark upon a performance. For what can be said about both Skrowaczewski’s London Third and Haitink’s Berlin Fourth is that the depth of their experience has made them sure-footed as they chart the sometimes wayward symphonic argument of these large-scale works.  Both performances were masterly in the sense of organic formal development and ultimate fulfilment.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda | Askonas Holt
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda | Askonas Holt

Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major opens with a horn call above a very quiet shimmering string tremolo. Exactly what sort of horn call it should be is open to interpretation. The movement is marked “Lively - not too fast” and the dynamic for the horn is mezzo-forte. The symphony has a title, “The Romantic” and Bruckner spoke of such things as sunrise, a medieval town and a horn calling forth knights to gallop out of the gates to the forest. So it can be right to play it as a forthright, bright and stirring call to set the symphonic narrative on its way. But this evening, in the Phiharmonie, we heard the principal horn player sound a call of poetic sensitivity, a slight but telling tremble in the notes, and nuancing that gave the moment a spellbinding expressive depth and inwardness, announcing an agenda for the symphony less concerned with the bright morning bustle of an awakening town, but more with the dreams and longings of the Romantic poetic soul.

So affecting was this opening that even at the height of the development, where the call is transformed into a stunning, slow, fortissimo brass chorale, the poetry of that beginning still shone through. The second subject is built upon a bird call (that of the great tit), and Haitink paced it to lyrical perfection; the stormy third subject rose up as an angry flowering of the poetic spirit, and the whole movement gained a fulsome pastoral dimension as it proceeded. The coda was tremendous, with all four horns in full cry, blaring out that horn call that had been such a fertile source of inspiration some twenty minutes earlier.

But at this point my review enters difficult and decidedly subjective territory, and I have to report that I have found no-one else to agree with me. It had been a tremendous first movement, a performance in which I thought I detected Haitink’s humane and sensitive influence over the often unbridled power of this orchestra, but suddenly with the advent of the Andante it seemed as though they’d had enough of these effeminate subtleties and reverted to their customary supercharged mode. It was an Andante with no hint of vulnerability, superbly played, but the poetic muse had been side-lined and any hint of “Innigkeit” (inwardness) expunged. Even the violas’ second subject had the sound of instruments that were playing out forcefully rather than the dusky, gentle, introverted warmth one hopes to hear. The hunting horn calls and brass fanfares of the Scherzo were, of course, splendidly delivered, but the rhythmic urgency and brightness was lost in the silky legato of the strings’ reply. Come the finale, the sheer powering force of it all verged upon the insufferable, and the sight of the strings all playing as one with manic vigour is the stuff of nightmares.

There was no sign during, or after, the performance that any of the musicians or the conductor had any reservations, it all seemed sweetness and light, the orchestra smiling and Haitink nodding his appreciation, and after a blessed silence came a storm of applause. Maybe I was alone in the hall with my fragile and bruised sensibilities, but you will be able to see, hear and judge for yourself in the BPO Digital Concert Hall archive.

In the first half of the concert the orchestra had been joined by Emanuel Ax for a moving performance of Mozart’s early Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major “Jeunehomme”, moving because of the sheer gravity of it all. It is an astonishing work, perhaps the first time Mozart revealed that special depth of melancholy vision that sometimes overcame him. The performance was at the hefty end of the modern instrument spectrum, but it was more the weight given to the C minor Andantino and the quiet minuet that Mozart inserts into the heart of the Presto finale that gave this performance its particular strength. The Andantino came across as a threnody, with Ax’s embellishments like a myriad of falling teardrops. Every so often in his solo passage work Ax seemed to cut loose from the rhythmic pulse, which added a further uneasy quality to this most searching of Mozart’s piano concertos. 

***11