Bernard Haitink returned for his yearly visit to Symphony Hall to conduct a program which embraced the Classical, Romantic and Modern with works by Haydn, Beethoven and Debussy, demonstrating the energy and concentration of someone half as old. In recent years Haitink’s only concession to age has been to shift the usual Friday matinee to an evening performance. For the first time, this visit found a high padded stool on the podium, unused until the Beethoven and then only for the briefest of pauses between movements.

Bernard Haitink conducting the Boston Symphony © Robert Torres
Bernard Haitink conducting the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Haydn recycled incidental music for a 1774 revival at Eszterháza of a 1697 comedy by Jean-François Regnard , Le Distrait, for his Symphony no. 60 in C , Il distratto”. Its six movements include the overture, four entr’actes and finale, giving the symphony a more theatrical comic profile. The title character’s chronic distraction informs the music which often wanders from style to style, loses its train of thought, runs aground or just fizzles out as in the fifth movement. Spoken dramas in 18th-century Germany and Austria often included singing as well as incidental music, so it’s not surprising either that one can almost hear the words of a duet in the two contrasting themes of the Andante. “Il distratto” also includes one of Haydn’s characteristic musical jokes: the pell-mell finale briefly grinds to a cacophonous halt so the violins can retune.

Haitink seated the violas of Haydn’s chamber orchestra to his right, the two French horns next to the oboes in front of him, and exiled the timpani and two euphoniums, subbing for the score’s tenor trumpets, to the center of the back wall. Though notable for sparkling tone, cut diamond articulation and rhythmic vitality, Haitink’s performance lacked the face necessary to consistently animate the humor behind the notes or convincingly bring off Haydn’s “joke”.

The violas remained at the lip of the stage for the remainder of the program, next joined by Debussy’s populous orchestra for Nocturnes. The most successful Debussy performances conjure vivid images from the ebb and flow of the composer’s harmonic and melodic swells. Like Haitink’s previous Debussy with the orchestra, Nocturnes was a master class in buoyant, pinpoint articulation; translucent tone, refined dynamics; clarity of texture transforming the large orchestra into a chamber ensemble, and rhythmic fluidity keyed to the composer’s characteristic aquatic play of colors. Debussy took his inspiration from Whistler’s series of “Nocturnes,” the art world’s version of fifty shades of grey. Those gradations were made visible in Nuages' tidal stream of clouds, which passed with subtle gradations of light and dark, haunted by the English horn’s repeated motif, like some orphic gull endowed with the ability to sing. Fêtes flooded the hall with bright light and the merrymaking of milling crowds as the fanfares of a military procession pealed out. The celebration faded once more to the greyness of the cool serenity and mysterious allure of Sirènes. The Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, added suggestive vocal shades to the palette with their wordless enchantment.

Bernard Haitink conducts Debussy's <i>Nocturnes</i> in Boston © Robert Torres
Bernard Haitink conducts Debussy's Nocturnes in Boston
© Robert Torres

Benjamin Button-like, Haitink was at his most brash, bold and youthful with Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major. Last month, Andris Nelsons used the full forces of a modern orchestra for the Eroica. Haitink kept to Beethoven’s scoring, the orchestra, only minimally more numerous and varied than that for Haydn, and providing a visual reminder of how close instrumentally – but how far compositionally – Beethoven was from his teacher. With economy of gesture, Haitink summoned drive and escalating intensity from the orchestra wed to a limpid, chamber-like articulation and intimacy. Lively tempi created a sense of never- slackening rhythmic inevitability culminating in a Dionysian Allegro con brio which sounded faster than even Beethoven’s fast marking. The orchestra responded with inspired virtuosity never allowing speed to blur detail.

The audience was reluctant to let Haitink go after such a cathartic finale. They would have kept calling him back had he not finally tucked his score (whose pages he had turned only once, before the Allegretto) under his arm, patted it with a smile, and strolled off stage.