Compared with most other professions, even in music, the number of conductors who keep working into their 80s and even beyond is disproportionately high – all that arm-waving must be good for the heart. A little more than a week before his 90th birthday, Bernard Haitink has been in Munich conducting three back-to-back performances of Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on consecutive nights, a daunting enough prospect for conductors many years his junior. It was inevitable that concessions were necessary to cope with Haitink’s growing frailty. After a bronchial infection had struck earlier in the month, he was under doctor’s orders to conduct ‘only’ the symphony in these concerts, and its accompanying work, Beethoven’s brief choral setting of Goethe’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, was assigned to his assistant, the young Portuguese conductor Nuno Coelho. The piece is barely as long as a concert overture, but Coelho distinguished himself in the way he charted the music’s course from a wonderfully still choral opening to the exuberance of the full forces in the final bars.

Bernard Haitink conducts the BRSO © Peter Meisel
Bernard Haitink conducts the BRSO
© Peter Meisel

For the “Choral” Symphony itself, in this second of the three concerts, Haitink was provided with a stool, which he came to rely on more and more as the evening progressed, and a score, which remained on its opening page until the start of the third movement, for Haitink’s mind and interpretative abilities seem undimmed. From the very start of the first movement there was the sense of both order and freedom, with even the moments of restraint latent with pent-up energy. Haitink’s work with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in recent years seems to have borne fruit in a lighter touch to orchestral texture in general, but not at the expense of Beethovenian dynamism, which saw a tremendous build-up of tension in the Allegro’s coda. Similarly, the Scherzo transmitted that curious Beethoven achievement of music that suggests buoyancy and weight at the same time – here, even the pauses were pregnant with a sense of movement.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra © Peter Meisel
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Peter Meisel

It was almost a relief to see Haitink take the weight off his feet for the slow movement, but even here he couldn’t keep seated for long as he swept the orchestra up into the poetry of his vision, the music gaining a sublime lilt as the figuration took flight and the instrumental forces making a beautifully blended sound.

The choral finale may not have been taken at the swiftest of tempos, but there was no shortage of impetus or energy, nor of magnificence or rhythmic bite in the choral singing. And the quartet of soloists could hardly have been bettered: Sally Matthews, Gerhild Romberger, Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley, the latter reminding us that for all his recent portrayal of operatic villains, he hasn’t lost his vocal charm in a joyous “O Freunde” that perfectly set up the optimism of the Ode. On the way to the work’s triumphant conclusion were a particularly perky march set against an almost martial rigour to the culminating choral verse.

Gerald Finley, Mark Padmore, Gerhild Romberger and Sally Matthews © Peter Meisel
Gerald Finley, Mark Padmore, Gerhild Romberger and Sally Matthews
© Peter Meisel

Haitink’s relationship with the BRSO goes back more than 60 years, and some of his most important recordings – not least his early 1990s Ring cycle – have been made with these forces. The warmth of his reception by the Munich audience after this memorable Beethoven performance was reflected in his humbled, moving and almost tearful acknowledgement, a response perhaps to that most Dutch of audience practices, a unanimous standing ovation.