After all of that brooding Passiontide music, now for something more upbeat. Bernard Haitink and the Orchestra Mozart provided a sanguine Easter Sunday concert at the LAC in Lugano for the second year in a row. Launched by Claudio Abbado, the ensemble lay dormant following the conductor's death in 2014, before Haitink revived it three years later. It has proved a fruitful partnership, but there was word that this would be Haitink's final concert before he begins his "sabbatical period". That guaranteed the presence of a large crowd of devotees, and they were not disappointed. So full of youthful vigour was this concert that it was hard to believe that Haitink is now 90 years old.

Bernard Haitink conducts Orchestra Mozart © D. Vass
Bernard Haitink conducts Orchestra Mozart
© D. Vass

The Overture to Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a magical work, and in Haitink's hands it intoxicated. That was thanks to the clarity, colour and detail he drew from players: finely-balanced opening chords unravelled wondrously, fairies were made to dart before our eyes and boisterous hee-hawing strings for Bottom drew a broad smile. Haitink conducts with slight movements rather than the powerful sweeping gestures of old, but he has absolute authority and players watch him like hawks, flicks of his baton releasing barrages of explosive detail. Indeed, the conductor's energy seems to have become concentrated rather than diminished with age, and the orchestra, which played with a collective sense of purpose that gave their sound a combustible quality, flew out of the blocks and was clearly up for the occasion. Haitink, however, clearly wanted more, and one had the sense throughout of the conductor driving his forces onwards.

No less delightful was Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major, in which the OM forces were a lively, sensitive accompanist to Martin Helmchen's measured, even icily detached solo playing. They phased in and out of focus to create a dynamic backdrop featuring a rollicking orchestral introduction, crisp fanfare rhythms and brilliant detail such as in the imaginative contributions of garrulous bassoons. Helmchen streamed coolly through his scales, sounding especially fine in the poignant yearning second movement, his delicate, crystalline sound especially vulnerable. In the coruscating finale the pianist snapped into another gear, providing quicksilver runs and jaunty turns as the orchestra bubbled and scampered below, culminating in a fizzing cadenza.

Martin Helmchen, Bernard Haitink and Orchestra Mozart © D. Vass
Martin Helmchen, Bernard Haitink and Orchestra Mozart
© D. Vass

Schubert's Symphony no. 5 in B flat major is a Haitink favourite – he has performed it often with the Concertgebouw and the Berlin Philharmonic orchestras – and here the conductor drew a delicious account invested with elegant simplicity and razor sharp detail, the harmonic contrasts that underpin the work boldly accentuated. Haitink offered taut yet spacious direction in which everything felt breathable and the rallentandi at the cadences entirely natural; the way the perky Allegro broadened into the lovely four-measure melody was heart-melting. There followed a dreamy account of the Andante that led to a pleasingly rustic and robust rendition of the Minuet in a minor key (a special shout out to the roaming basses for sawing through the circular melody that is passed around the orchestra with such humorous mock severity). The nimble Finale was brilliant. If this is indeed a send-off for Haitink he has gone out with a bang.


James' travel to Lugano was arranged by Fondazione LuganoMusica

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