Visits by Bernard Haitink to London are generally deemed to be ‘event concerts’; at the venerable age of 88, the conductor is an acknowledged master of the central Austro-German orchestral repertoire and the last couple of years have seen a fond relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra grow to produce some first-class concerts a performance of Mahler 8 earlier this year particularly springs to mind.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda

It tends to be that programmes featuring a star conductor and/or soloist focus on meaty traditional works and this concert did not buck the trend, pairing as it did Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F major with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major; hardly the most groundbreaking of combinations, but a fine opportunity to see Haitink at work.

And what interesting work it was. Haitink’s approach to Brahms’ Third seemed grounded in classical tradition without being bound and hamstrung to it. A solid, melodious brass opening hinted at an interpretation that would be powerful without being overbearing and as the first movement progressed, we had forceful violin thrust against pastoral sweetness from the woodwind. Indeed, the definition in the woodwind was one of the highlights of the performance, the interplay between the instruments clearly defined and outstandingly highlighted, with some beautifully clear playing from the flutes. The interpretation, lustrous in texture, veered upon the portentous at times, a mood then dismantled by the sudden riotous flurries from the strings which were visibly whipped up by Haitink, creating layers of tension.

The second movement was almost poetic, with an approach, expressively paced, that seemed to bring a sense of bloom among the strings, while the waltz-like third was wistful in tone, a horn solo, strong apart from one slight smudge, evocative and resonant. Steady precision in the final movement gave the performance focus and impetus, while the pale string flutters in the finale brought an poignancy to the conclusion of the symphony.

Haitink was joined on stage in the second half of the concert by Emanuel Ax for Beethoven's“Emperor” concerto in a reading of the piece that felt, continuing the leader analogy, more enlightened despot than tyrannical dictator. Ax’s playing had a sense of refinement that overrode the extreme technical difficulties of the piece; the mighty Allegro generally treated with a light touch and daintiness, yet with limpid definition – playing of quiet verve, which was entirely in keeping with the nuanced and unpompous sound Haitink drew from the orchestra, with strong timpani and green woodwind. Relaxed bowing from the violins added a sound that was unstrained in quality. This unity of interpretation was particularly noticeable in the second movement where the focus switches to the orchestra and Ax provided melodiously cascading phrases that caressed and lifted the orchestra sound. A stillness as Ax segued from Adagio into Rondo was a beautiful touch, a seamless transition of crystal clarity. As a display of decades of joint musical experience between Haitink and Ax, it was entirely rewarding, any thoughts on more diverse programming forgotten.