In a certain way, Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor and Brahms' Symphony no. 4 in E minor offer two fundamental and opposite insights into Romantic music. In this sense, Mozart's late symphonic cycle can be seen as the birth of a style that reaches its zenith with Brahms' final symphony. Beyond the evident characteristics that distinguish both authors’ compositional techniques, a shared aspect can be pointed out: the central significance of a lyrical subjectivity. Articulated on such a premise, last night's performance by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – sublime from beginning to end – depicted with clarity and virtuosity the formal connection, and also the contrast, that exists between these two core works.

Bernard Haitink © Todd Rosenberg
Bernard Haitink
© Todd Rosenberg

As Richard Taruskin asserts in his Oxford History of Western Music, the Mozart's G minor Symphony contains a Romantic emotional self-portrait. Specially in its first movement, with an atmosphere of pathos "conjured up by two highly contrasted, lyrical themes, a wealth of melting chromaticism, and a high level of rhythmic agitation”. That was the principle which guided Haitink's interpretation of the Molto allegro. In this regard, the homogeneous string sound was decisive, emphasising the uniformity of each thematic part, but also by the achievement of a fluid dialogue between the different dramatic identities. Thus first and second violins chose a continuous and organic phrasing rather than subdivided rhythms, and the rest of the strings contributed to that aim through light bow strokes. The outcome was effective: a musical discourse of yearning and anguish, which alternated desire and conflict, in consonance with the tempestuous inner universe that is characteristic of Romantic subjectivity.

The Andante brought about an inversion: the woodwinds —especially clarinet and flute— took over the melodic function and rose above the orchestral mass, as soloist voices. It is inevitable to associate the principal motif of this movement —cautiously introduced in soft piano dynamics by the RCO members at initial bars— with the Andante cantabile of Beethoven's First Symphony. This similarity is not casual nor irrelevant for Haitink's approach: the progressive subordination that the strings experimented with —a feature that was typical along the whole Romantic period and one of the most important evolutions that Beethoven's symphonic works carry out according to The Classical Style— dominated this stretch of the exegesis and which was also extended throughout the second half of the symphony.

The dancing character of the Minuet gave more physicality to the cellos and the bassoon, and Haitink’s gestures standardised the criteria for the brief figurations, obtaining an appropriated ludic tone. Finally, the Allegro assai enabled us to attend the greatest technical exhibition of the entire evening: the RCO showed all its talent and masterful contrapuntal skills through the vertiginous conclusive passages. In sum, the Dutch conductor and his musicians were up to Mozart's grandeur.

After the interval, the Romantic journey continued with Brahms. The violins opened the Allegro ma non troppo strongly, with a forceful decisiveness, creating a passionate context, similar to Mozart’s Molto allegro but more intense and powerful. The parallel drawn between what we had heard in the Mozart – even with greater density and exuberance – was clearly perceived. Going further on this sentimental explosion, horns, oboes and flutes started solemnly the Andante moderato, demonstrating why it is one of the most impeccable of Brahms’ slow movements. The best of Haitink's accomplishments here was to hold the tempi while expressing a sense of poetic tension and strange stillness. Thereupon we witnessed a Romantic return of the Mozartian playful spirit: the celebrated Allegro giocoso —according to specialists, the only true Scherzo that can be found in Brahms' symphonies – was gracefully performed by the RCO, with special mention for timpani, violas and first violins. Finally, the apotheosis came: an excellent fourth movement elaborated from the absolute dedication of every one of the musicians on the Concertgebouw's stage.

Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra not only paid tribute to two of the best compositions by two of the best composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, but they also delighted the audience with the chance of a better understanding of the complexity and temporary essence that surrounded the Romantic period.