This concert was not officially the celebration of Bernard Haitink’s 60th year as maestro of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but it had been announced by Dutch Radio as an event, and that would prove to be an understatement, not only from musical point of view. Afterwards, Haitink was awarded Commander of the Order of the Dutch Lion, a rare accolade for people "with special merits of a highly exceptional nature of the Dutch society".

Bernard Haitink © Todd Rosenberg
Bernard Haitink
© Todd Rosenberg

On the program was a rare mixture of Debussy’s Nocturnes, preceded by the languid Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, and followed by Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. Given the fact all these works are written within a time span of 20 years it is astonishing to hear the huge contrast in musical language. Yet is it a coincidence that these two composers were on the threshold of mastership and public recognition? For Bruckner it had lasted a lifetime, over 60 years he had to wait for that, being rejected again and again as Wagnerian in a hostile Vienna. But finally, with his Seventh there would be a triumph starting from its première in 1884, and it would be performed an astonishing 32 times before his death in 1896. It is loved by the audience and with the combination of a great maestro and this fantastic orchestra nothing could go wrong. This was a very personal interpretation, Haitink driving Bruckner’s already slow tempi sometimes to nearly a standstill, creating a sound world of sheer beauty, that made it virtually impossible to breath, from the quietest string passages, ever changing in colour and dynamics, to the most glorious brass fanfares. The conclusion of the Adagio with its reference to Wagner’s death was a celebration from the horns and Wagner tubas. There wasn’t a single moment that isn’t absolutely convincing and magical.

Debussy's Faune needs little introduction. The heat of the day was so strikingly presented in this performance, conveying the shimmering heat of the day and the inability of movement. Haitink paced the work extremely slowly, controlled yet still passionate. 

The three Nocturnes are altogether very different in character, with references to clouds (Nuages) or the mysterious songs of the Sirènes giving a transcendence of the appreciation of life itself. Again the performance here was beyond any standard. The vibrato of the cor anglais in Nuages was absolutely beautiful. In good performances there are always surprises for the listener, in colour, character and timbre. The female voices of the Dutch Chamber Choir were given an even more prominent role, ruling as true sirens over the orchestra itself. Given the tempo of the second nocturne, Fêtes, I would not be very comfortable at a party given at the Haitink residence. It would be a rather dull gathering, no fireworks at all. What remained was an immaculate performance. The RCO was giving Maestro more than he could possibly ask for... a precious gift from which the audience truly profited.