Bernard Haitink has stood at the helm of orchestras in a host of major cities, and fostered a generation of gifted performers and conductors, the talents who will come to the pit and podium after him. What’s more, his tenure at the Lucerne Festival has been indispensable to the venue’s sterling reputation.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
© Priska Ketterer

Despite that long history, there is always something infinitely fresh, even effervescent, that Haitink’s conducting draws out of his musicians. Invariably, his is a modest conducting style, one perhaps even more restrained as he gets older, but one that his players respond to famously. In the first of the Lucerne Festival symphony concerts this season, Haitink slipped into a formal tuxedo to conduct works by Mendelssohn and Schubert with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. This starry COE configuration is made up of professional musicians who return to Lucerne each summer from many locations to share their extraordinary talents.

Mendelssohn’s The Fair Melusina is a lyrical and easily digestible piece that dates from the early 1830s. Under Haitink’s modest direction, a mere fluttering of the fingers on his left hand often signalled a change among the strings or a vehement yank of his arm in at the hip served to boost the energy level. His was a vocabulary that the musicians understood implicitly, even if it was almost imperceptible to us in the audience. 

The showstopper of the evening, however, was Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor that followed, with Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova as soloist. Unusually, this concerto has no orchestral introduction; instead, the solo violin plays from the very first measure. Ibragimova’s playing was delivered with a degree of confidence and musicality that would be hard to top. Indeed, on an instrument built by Anselmo Bellosio, dated to around 1775, she played in an almost otherworldly dimension, pushing orchestral tempi in some instances. By all rules of logic, such dynamism should have brought her to the edge of her physical limits. Instead, without any allure or contrivance, she played as if she had the piece in her very DNA.  

Alina Ibragimova plays Mendelssohn
© Priska Ketterer

In the second movement, Ibragimova transitioned into the sweetness of a lullaby, and evoked a true sense of “a lightness of being”. In the finale, she played with compassion and phenomenal virtuosity. Coming to the work’s conclusion, Haitink stood up from his stool to meet her robust and dynamic, almost warp-speed, string work, head on. As compelling as it was masterful, it was no surprise when there were audible gasps when the she finished, a flourish met by a barrage of cheers and applause, also from members of the orchestra. 

Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major, “The Great”, followed after the interval, the orchestra moving between the bombastic and inquisitive, from quick dance steps to musical entities more firmly and heavily rooted. Principal woodwinds were all given ample solo time to parade their individual best, but by the same token, to sound out in shared passages, and the viola had a particularly resonant presence. Overall, the density of textures made the symphony something of a thick and richly woven tapestry.

At its end, this “dream team” of players and conductor took thunderous applause: Haitink, perhaps not only for the evening’s triumph, but also for the indelible mark he continues to make on the quality of the Lucerne Festival. The whole hall was on its feet, hardly letting him leave the stage. After five or six return bows, Haitink just shrugged as if to say, “okay, so be it”, and disappeared, his tremendously modest demeanour just as endearing as his legendary reputation is deserved.