This concert was the first of two to be given by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Bernard Haitink, to mark his 85th birthday, and it was a shame that the Barbican was not sold out for what promised to be a special evening. Even before the performance had started, Haitink was greeted with cheers from the audience, and quite rightly so - his career has spanned six decades, and as evidenced by their 2011 Proms performance, he shares a particularly warm relationship with this orchestra.

Bernard Haitink © Matthias Creutziger
Bernard Haitink
© Matthias Creutziger

The concert opened with Schumann's Manfred Overture, a dark work written at a time when Schumann was suffering greatly from auditory hallucinations. This was a pathos-infused performance, Haitink injecting rhythmic drive into the almost relentless melodic ideas.

The scene had been set wonderfully for Berg's Violin Concerto. As with the Schumann, it is a tragic work; almost an orchestral Requiem, it is dedicated "To the memory of an angel" (Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius). The work is perhaps the best illustration of the argument that Berg was a Romantic at heart, masquerading as a serialist. Soloist Isabelle Faust has recently won acclaim for her recording of this work with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart, and her playing was exemplary. As a performer she is understated in her gestures but still projects an incredible intensity. Her Stradivarius violin, dubbed the 'Sleeping Beauty' for its crystalline, pure tone, sang beautifully in the first movement. Haitink controlled the accompaniment with care, but neither he nor Faust were afraid of letting the solo line integrate with the orchestral texture at times, thus creating heightened variation and tension in the more dramatic solo moments.

The opening of the second movement, the famous statement of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale arranged into Berg's angst-ridden tone row, was full of punch, and the interruption of the drama with the statement of Bach's chorale Es ist Genug in the woodwind, led by the clarinets, was a beautiful moment, even more so as Bach's chorale gradually gets absorbed into Berg's harmonic language.

During the interval, after the turmoil and tonal ambiguity of the Berg, my ears were yearning for the serene F Major of the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6. The well-known motif signifying the "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside", sounded all the more warm and not just because of the exemplary playing of the COE’s strings but because it was the perfect foil to the highly-wrought tension of the preceding work. Haitink's interpretation was masterful, the work was taken at a brisk tempo but the ebb and flow was beautifully rendered, particularly the last three movements. The timpanist, who was only required in the fourth movement, had a smile of admiration on his face throughout and looked just as engaged as the audience members.

The entire audience gave a standing ovation and cheers, no doubt of gratitude for a long-spanning career that has produced many game-changing and life-enhancing interpretations of an incredibly wide repertoire of works. Haitink, with characteristic modesty, insisted the orchestra were part of this reception, and the concert was brought to a poignant close.

*****