What a fine Mozart orchestra the LSO became under the benevolent gaze of Sir Colin Davis, and with Bernard Haitink on hand as a regular guest conductor, what a fine Mozart orchestra they shall continue to be. Their annual concerts at Lincoln Center this year paired Mozart with Shostakovich, the latter a composer in whose music it would be easy to forget that Haitink has considerable experience. This second evening – a sparsely-attended, security-ridden gala in honour of Mayor Bloomberg – juxtaposed two elusive last works: Mozart’s final piano concerto, and Shostakovich’s final symphony. The programming was not especially beneficial to either, although Mozart, at least, hardly needs that. The LSO play especially well for Haitink in whatever music, and here they were on special form.

Emanuel Ax © Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco

It isn’t often that Mozart makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention, but the opening lilt and song of the opening here certainly did. From the orchestral introduction this was a performance of utter security, in typical Haitink style, but also full of generosity, wit, and humanity. Not for nothing did Sir Colin say that Mozart’s music is “life itself.” Haitink allowed a very communicative string tone to unfold over long lines, while counterpoint remained properly propulsive without being obtrusive, teeming with a natural inner life. Alas the nuance of orchestral work was not matched from the piano. Although Emanuel Ax was his magnanimous self, he was surprisingly unsubtle of touch, occasionally self-regarding and yet at the same time rather anonymous. Ornamentation was florid but unnecessary, adding little, although the cadenza to the first movement was bright, and the playing in the finale was snappy.

To Ax’s left, however, the playing was ideal. Haitink’s extraordinary talent for balances allowed the principal winds to do their crucial work with space and in confidence. Adam Walker (flute), Emmanuel Laville (oboe), and Rachel Gough (bassoon) needed no second invitation to play with phrasing and details that never failed to bring out a smile. In the slow movement, they were if anything even more exquisite, Walker in particular floating the final reprise of the opening lament with a poise that concealed a thousand sadnesses. And in the finale the orchestra as a whole excelled, with a welcome rusticity and infinite variation of phrase in the strings, a fizz in detailing, and an ineffable sense of direction.

After the Mozart, a work that made Kurt Sanderling “always think of the intensive-care ward in a hospital.” Haitink is one of those rare Shostakovich conductors who manages to take the composer out of the irritatingly persistent frame of “musical freedom good, Soviet Union bad.” (Our programme note for the evening did not, and this kind of view is particularly dogged in the United States.) Rightly, Haitink seemed reluctant to try and make any sense out of this bemusing work, which it is hard to believe was written only four decades ago. Even so, there was a winning energy to the first and third movements, and an unflappable sense of pacing to the slower ones. Importantly, he didn’t overdo those bizarre quotations (Rossini’s William Tell and Wagner’s “Todesverkündigung” are only the most obvious), making them part of the whole but nonetheless strange within it. Above all, though, Mahler’s influence was made completely clear, whether in the grotesquerie of the third movement, or the spasmodic dying away of the finale.

Once again, Haitink drew superb playing from the LSO. The orchestra is blessed to have not one but two world-class principal flutes, and Gareth Davies brought out the anxious quality of his long solo at the start of the piece without sacrificing beauty of tone. Tim Hugh seared with his solos in the second movement, while the clarinets were particularly eerie in the third. This was as convincing a performance as Shostakovich allows.