At the Concertgebouw, we’re privileged with great performances, so sometimes expectations can get a bit too high. Following their hugely successful Beethoven and Brahms cycles, Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe returned with Schumann’s symphonies and concertos. The first of three concerts, tonight’s programme included his lesser performed Violin Concerto in D minor, combined with his highly engaging Symphony no. 3 in E flat major “Rhenish”. Throughout, Haitink produced great tension and brilliantly illuminated Schumann’s turbulent colours, but did not reach the majestic depth and emotional resonance experienced in his earlier cycles.

Isabelle Faust © Felix Broede
Isabelle Faust
© Felix Broede

Overture, Scherzo, and Finale proved a great opening for the week, exploring the spectrum of Schumann’s temperament. Written in 1841, Schumann considered it his second symphony for a while as the piece thematically nearly forms a symphony, missing a slow movement. Haitink conducted with trademark minimalism, nonetheless creating a dreamy and frolicsome world. In the middle scherzo, the Dutch conductor stimulated fiery brightness from strings resulting in gripping suspense. In the final part he concluded with an exhilarating, majestic climax. Several times, the intensity Haitink produced led to revitalizing shudders sprawling down my spine.

Following the tremendous opening, Isabelle Faust had a lot to live up in the Violin Concerto. Schumann never heard the piece performed, premiered after his death and forgotten until it resurfaced at the beginning of the 20th century with the help of Yehudi Menuhin. It is still relatively infrequently performed, Haitink never even performed with it in all his time with the Royal Concertgebouw. Compared with Bruch's and Brahms’ works for violin, Schumann’s lacks their exuberance, almost a bit fragmented in its extremes. Yet Faust performed superlatively, with very expressive angular body language, manoeuvering her petite physique through the neuroses of Schumann’s frenzied passages.

In the first movement, a sonata form In kräftigem, nicht zu schnellem Tempo, she interacted elegantly with the whispers of the oboe and the clarinet. Timpani crisply delivered some heavy-duty accents. Since the piece lacks a cadenza, Faust didn’t have a solo to display her skills, but the delicate and highly charged suspense she created with Haitink during the pianissimo passages captivated in the Langsam movement. Here the lyrical melody’s poetic meandering resulted in some loss of momentum. It appeared as if Haitink and Faust were trying to get the most out of the piece, but Schumann hadn’t given them enough. Lebhaft doch nicht schnell, closes the concerto with wholesome vigor. 

With the powerful opening, the legendary conductor set the bar really high for the rest of the evening, so it was disappointing not to feel the turbulent vigor of Overture, Scherzo, and Finale throughout Schumann’s Third. From the moment Haitink opened with Lebhaft he sustained glorious brilliance, whether silver horns, softly bronzing trumpets, or the barely audible, golden lined trombones later on. It just lacked the magical punch of the opening piece.  

In the second movement, Sehr mäßig, Schumann evokes the calm expectation of a fresh, spring morning. Mahler came to mind as Haitink contrasted the pastoral air with majestic currents. With Nicht schnell, Haitink decreased the pace, building up the slow burning suspense from the gentle interplay of the orchestra, resulting in another highpoint. He continued in the fourth movement Feierlich with those glorious trombones that before then had been silent. In the final Lebhaft, Haitink infused the folksy tunes with cheerful optimism. The wind section delivered some charming contrast to the strings. Visibly the musicians enjoyed the journey all the way through to the gushing climax.

However disappointed in missing that special magic Haitink and the COE’s synergy is known to produce, this spoiled listener eagerly anticipates the other two performances in this still brilliant Schumann cycle.

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