When he returned to Avery Fisher Hall in 2011, Bernard Haitink had not conducted the New York Philharmonic since 1978. Haitink is a regular presence in the city, often guest conducting with touring orchestras from Chicago, Boston, and London, but he adds very welcome weight to the Philharmonic’s season. Mahler, a fixture of Haitink’s recent work, comes next week. This week: Webern, Berg, and Beethoven.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda

It’s surprising that the music of the Second Viennese School has not played a larger role in Haitink’s performing life. His recorded catalogue is profuse, but is little help here. Webern has popped up recently – but not Webern as we tend to think of him. Im Sommerwind is a pastoral tone poem, completed just as he came under the influence of Arnold Schoenberg at Vienna University in 1904. An idyll that takes poetic inspiration in a way not dissimilar to his teacher’s Verklärte Nacht, the piece uses the indulgent orchestra of Strauss and Mahler, and many of their gestures too. In its precision of colour and orchestration, it looks much more to the future than in its harmonic boldness. Here Haitink took a very lush approach, but never quite coaxed the richness he needed from a very tentative Philharmonic. 

Berg’s Violin Concerto comes from the other side of the Viennese revolution, combining twelve-tone technique with a profound emotionality that, as the cliché wrongly has it, had not been expressed in starker forms of modernism. Here the orchestra also seemed to lack confidence, despite Haitink’s structural assurance and cosseting speeds. That left the spotlight for Leonidas Kavakos, whose inward-looking performance instinctively shied away from it. Unafraid to go beyond superficial beauty in pursuit of emotional insight, Kavakos showed intense expressive control, remaining largely lyrical and displaying wonderful attention to lines that dimly remember dance rhythms. If the first movement had some sleepy orchestral playing, growing power in the second allowed Kavakos to do much more, to struggle, disoriented, against the orchestra while interacting with it, especially with the woodwinds. There is a very fine performance in this partnership, waiting to come out.

Haitink’s Beethoven tends to pay a touch more attention to recent trends in performance practice than might be expected, although nowhere near to the extent of the Beethoven of David Zinman, the last person to conduct this symphony with this orchestra. Speeds are not raucous, but they are just a twist faster than the ear intuits; accents can be more aggressive than they would have been decades ago; the timpani are a touch harsh. But two things recall the Beethoven of old. Haitink has an unerring ability, in this and far more music, to make it seem like the music is being left totally alone, unfolding of its own accord – this is art concealing art. And this “Eroica” had a stoic quality, something indomitable to it, especially in the first movement. It wasn’t the most convincing Beethoven I’ve heard from Haitink, nor from the Philharmonic. Internal detailing tended to get lost, and some of the playing was sloppy. But each movement built strongly, quite magnificently in the funeral march, and with great liveliness and direction in the finale.