"Every conductor, including myself, has a sell-by date," stated Bernard Haitink, on turning down the position of Music Director at the Chicago Symphony in 2006. Don’t believe a word of it. Last week, Haitink received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Gramophone and his music-making continues to be both profound and absorbing. Yesterday evening, this humble Dutchman presided over a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra which was “Just So” – everything in its place, every element in perfect proportion to each other. A Kipling performance.

Anna Lucia Richter © Nordic Arts Management
Anna Lucia Richter
© Nordic Arts Management

Mahler can sometimes seem the most histrionic of composers, yet there’s nothing histrionic about Haitink’s conducting. The Fourth is, admittedly, one of Mahler’s sunnier symphonies, opening with sleigh bells and concluding with a child’s vision of heaven, but there are darker moments in the Scherzo, with its devil’s violin. Haitink presided over all with a benevolent smile, stiff little flicks of his baton and nothing more dramatic than the occasional sharply inhaled sniff. The LSO clearly adores playing for him and responded with a glowing interpretation.

Glossy violins (placed antiphonally) led an impressive string section, indulging in sweet portamenti, while double basses sawed away vigorously to provide ballast. Leader Roman Simovic, swapping violins to one tuned a tone higher in the Scherzo, relished his devilish solos. The LSO horns rang out gloriously – and what luxury to have Katy Woolley, the Philharmonia’s principal, as “bumper”. If the trumpets were a little brazen in the third movement’s sudden E major climax – the entry into heaven – it was easy to rejoice in their exuberance. In a performance where the conducting was so restrained, there was no lack of character. Woodwinds were at their most animated, led by the gleaming flute of Gareth Davies. Lorenzo Iosco’s treacly bass clarinet was an especial treat.

Crowning the performance was a rendition of Das himmlische Leben (“The Heavenly Life” from Das Knaben Wunderhorn) as fine as any I’ve heard in concert. Anna Lucia Richter’s lyric soprano, as silvery as the sleigh bells which interrupt her verses, was the perfect fit for the text. There was no child-like affectation, no knowing glances that some sopranos indulge in, only a delicious tobogganing down to a B natural as St Ursula laughs to herself. Dressed in a cream gown, Richter remained beautifully poised and polished throughout, as did her conductor.

Haitink was joined by another like-minded musician in the first half. He and Murray Perahia must have played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major together countless times before and there was a genial familiarity about their performance here. Beethoven surprises by opening his concerto not with orchestra, but with the soloist alone. Haitink ushered the strings in gently in response. Apart from a fumbled downward scale after the orchestral tutti, Perahia played with grace. His second movement Orpheus tenderly quelled the gruff double bass lions. The orchestral sound occasionally felt too weighty and ponderous, but some bullish timpani enlivened the rondo finale. Gentlemanly Beethoven, but it was the Mahler I’ll treasure, Haitink proving he has plenty of shelf-life remaining. 

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