Bernard Haitink has still got it. After decades as the most dependable Brucknerian in the business, his last few years have been more variable. While he has clearly retained his vision for Bruckner’s symphonies, his physical frailty (he’s 85) has meant that communication to the orchestra has sometimes been touch and go. And the prolonged passages of driving, percussive rhythms, especially in scherzos, have sometimes flagged and run out of steam. But this evening he demonstrated that he can still deliver. It was occasionally a bit ragged around the edges, and on the few occasions that the temperature dropped it seemed that his failing stamina was to blame. But by and large this was a classic Haitink Bruckner account: expansive, coherent, authoritative and epic.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda

The greatest strength of Haitink’s Bruckner is his deep affinity with the music, the result of a close association going back many decades. Phrasing comes naturally to him, and he has an instinctive feel for when to dice up the textures and when to let the long phrases flow. Those Luftpausen between the long string passages in the first movement that younger conductors fret over are simply felt here, and their duration is always ideal. Tempos seem slow but, more often than not, that is more the result of expansive textures rather than tardiness.

For all his familiarity with the score, Haitink is still able to make the music sound fresh. The first movement had impact and weight, where needed, but there was lightness too, and both orchestra and conductor showed an impressive agility in the development, keeping ahead of the music through its twists and turns. The quiet end to the first movement was unusually emphatic, no fading away here, more a gradual but tightly controlled winding down of momentum. The scherzo was fast with plenty of bite, although the opening was cleaner on the da capo. There was no let up of tension in the Trio, the pulse still pushing through and the dynamics more moderate than quiet. Haitink caught the harps off-guard with his snappy phrase endings at one point; they, like us, expecting some reprieve here. Haitink didn’t quite manage to keep the power going to the very end of the scherzo, his years finally catching up with him, but better that than take the whole thing slower.

Tempos in the Adagio were impressively fluid and again surprisingly fast at times. The orchestral playing here was good but mixed. The Wagner tuba chorales were sharp, and some of the horn entries were messy. Fortunately, the ever-dependable LSO strings carried the day. Their rich, focussed tone underpinned the whole movement, always providing warmth or weight as needed. The brass returned to form for the finale, with the trumpets and trombones declamatory and incisive for the opening fanfares. Haitink’s feeling for form really paid off in this movement, which always felt like it was going somewhere and never sagged. And the ending was spectacular, the coda carefully shaped and graded to prepare the brass-emblazoned chords in the final bars. Haitink was in his element here, giving us a triumphant and glorious conclusion. Some passages earlier on suggested that age was against him this evening, but the controlled and precisely directed power of these last few minutes showed that they were just details, and that his passion for this music and his ability to communicate it are as strong as ever.