Nothing controversial. No idiosyncrasies. Just pure, solid-gold music-making. But more than that, this was Bernard Haitink saying farewell. Many say that if Haitink is not the greatest interpreter of Bruckner, he’s certainly in the top one. So, with Bruckner running through his veins like a stick of rock, Haitink was the first draw in this mouth-watering line-up that would make even the most hard-nosed of concert-goers drool. Then there’s coup number two: the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The city of Vienna was not kind to Bruckner initially, but it did spawn one of the finest orchestras in the world, one that took Bruckner firmly to its heart and remained there ever since. Stopping off in London after its month-long stint at the Salzburg Festival, the Vienna Phil brought us a programme that reached deep within, and with artists to match. Which brings us to tick-box number three – the soloist.

Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Murray Perahia, the advertised pianist, had to withdraw due to illness, but the late stand-in was no less than Emanuel Ax, and Ax playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major would be enough in anyone’s books to excite the senses. In this performance, he gave us Beethoven at his most noble and searching. Delicate articulation and determined force were Ax’s weapons, the orchestra following every twist and turn and Haitink enhancing the subtle changes of dynamics and tempo with calm control. I rather enjoyed the more Moderato feel to the first movement, with Ax playing its cadenza like a full-blown sonata, and the moments of stillness immediately afterwards, and indeed in the dual-personality of the second movement, were like dying breaths hanging mistily in the air. There was nice attack and momentum in the Rondo, but with a slightly restrained rather than vivacious bounce, following which Ax’s encore, Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat, eased us gently into the interval.

Emanuel Ax and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Emanuel Ax and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Viennese major on quality and tradition, and Haitink’s clean and honest reading of Bruckner’s immense Seventh Symphony had all the same hallmarks. The Seventh is one of Bruckner’s finest achievements, simple on the outside but crammed full of content on the inside, although the organic slow-burn nature of Bruckner’s music can make for some rather matter-of-fact performances, even by highly reputable outfits. Not so with Haitink. His masterful unfolding of Bruckner’s large canvasses presented the composer’s case perfectly: everything in balance, everything in its place, and played with impeccable finesse by the Vienna Philharmonic. This was as absorbing a performance as any I’ve heard in recent years.

Bernard Haitink conducts Bruckner's Seventh Symphony © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bernard Haitink conducts Bruckner's Seventh Symphony
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Haitink’s instincts for the architecture of the piece were revealed in his natural shaping, while wringing out the gradual build-ups and climaxes for all their worth. There was certainly no fatigue showing in the orchestra as they clearly put their hearts and souls into the performance, and Haitink brought out some beautifully delicate detailing along with the full, robust warmth of the Vienna Philharmonic sound – sumptuous and vibrant strings, singing woodwinds and one of the finest, well-rounded brass sections you’re ever likely to hear. The masterly control of the climax in the second movement, complete with cymbal clash (still disputed), was a fitting tribute, Bruckner’s deeply personal elegy to Wagner. The sweeping and pulsing of the Scherzo and the glistening shards and blazing embers of the Finale were equally rewarding, leaving me wondering after all of this how the musical world will be without Bernard Haitink. You see, this performance, followed by one more concert in Lucerne later in the week, marks the end of Haitink’s active conducting career after 65 years. This still feels hard to believe.

Bernard Haitink leaves the stage... © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Bernard Haitink leaves the stage...
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Proper tributes can be left to another time but, for now, maybe Emanuel Ax’s words would be appropriate: “Bernard Haitink has been an inspiration to all of us in the world of music. He has combined never-ending search for truth in the works he conducts with the ability to make each performance sound inevitably right.” This is exactly what I experienced this evening, and it was a privilege!

*****