The second of Bernard Haitink and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s two concerts marking both Haitink’s 85th birthday and his 60th year as a conductor, programmed some remarkably virtuosic and exciting music. Haitink was greeted with loud cheers from the audience as he entered the stage, for what was to be a very special evening indeed.

Bernard Haitink © Clive Barda | Askonas Holt
Bernard Haitink
© Clive Barda | Askonas Holt

Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin was composed as a tribute to François Couperin, the French Baroque composer, yet the music is far from Baroque sounding. The term “Tombeau” (grave or tomb) was one used by French Baroque composers to honour late colleagues, and Ravel wrote this piece in 1917 as both a tribute to Couperin and the French Baroque in general, but also to remember friends killed in World War One. The piece was originally written for piano, but four of the movements were orchestrated in 1919.

The Prélude, with its richly ornamented, almost swimming melody, was taken at a breakneck speed, but there was a sense of control and clarity throughout. The extensive oboe part was very impressively played with a wonderful sense of playfulness, and you could hear every note of the parts orchestrated for string orchestra. The Forlane, composed as a response to a papal decree that tango was immoral and that the Italian forlana should be danced instead, was wonderfully seductive, although I wished Haitink would draw even more of the inherent sexiness out of the harmony. The final Rigaudon was bursting with life, and featured yet more excellent playing from the winds.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major was composed between 1929 and 1931, and is one of many pieces written at the time in which early American jazz is viewed through the lens of a European composer. Soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet gave an almost subdued performance, often making the piano part of the orchestral texture, only to re-emerge triumphantly, but never too loudly, moments later. Still, there was room for plenty of contrast. The extrovert, angular virtuosity of the first movement was replaced by an introvert delicateness in the second movement, although it was decidedly an unsentimental reading.

The entire performance was augmented by the truly fantastic playing of the COE winds, from the delightfully saxophone-like bassoons in the first movement and touching cor anglais playing of the second movement to the incredible sense of ensemble and general madness in the third and final movement. It was a true delight watching Thibaudet interact with the many wind soloists in the final movement. As an encore, Thibaudet played yet another Ravel piece, Pavane pour une infante défunte. The pared-down simplicity of the Pavane contrasted nicely to the breathtaking display of pianistic and orchestral virtuosity just moments prior.

Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor may not have orchestration as colourful and virtuosic as the Ravel pieces, but Haitink’s performance was still intensely dramatic and contrast-filled. The famous first movement was suitably tempestuous, and I was amazed at the dynamic contrast Haitink drew from the orchestra. A modern-instrument symphony orchestra playing Mozart is a relative rarity these days. The COE strings had a warm, full sound, yet they were able to both scale it back and play the intricate passagework with remarkable clarity. In the second movement, the wildly varying moods, ranging from graceful dancing to angry depair, were seemingly effortlessly captured. The opening of the third movement minuet was deliciously evil, and the pastoral calm of the trio was almost unsettling. The many “Mannheim Rockets” of the fourth movement propelled the movement forward at a remarkable speed. Again, the dynamic contrasts of the opening movement returned, to great effect. It was quite remarkable to hear just how softly and lightly that many musicians could play before suddenly exploding  into a gigantic forte.

Saturday’s concert with Bernard Haitink and the COE proved a true delight and a worthy celebration of one of the great conductors of our time. How I wish I could have a birthday party like this when I turn 85!