IJust over two years ago, at the age of 90, Bernard Haitink made his last appearance in London, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms with two of the composers closest to his heart throughout his 65-year career in the podium, Beethoven and Bruckner. The virtues of those performances, their clarity and insight, and their utter lack of anything flashy, epitomized Haitink’s strengths as a performer, ensuring his place in the pantheon of 20th-century conductors.
British audiences were especially privileged for more than half a century to have had so many opportunities to appreciate Haitink’s gifts in the concert hall and opera, beginning with his tenure as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic from 1967 to 1979, then to through his musical. conductors at Glyndebourne (1977-88) and at the Royal Opera House (1987-2002), and finally in the relationship he established in his later years with the London Symphony Orchestra. It had been part of my personal London concert life since the 1970s, when I was part of a group of prominent conductors, along with Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, Georg Solti, among others, who frequently worked in the capital; all of them would have been exceptional at any given time, and I doubt that any of us realized then how lucky we were to be able to hear them so regularly.
His critics would say that, compared to some of his contemporaries, Haitink’s repertoire was unadventurous and narrow. Certainly during his years at the ROH he did not direct any Puccini, relatively little Verdi (although his performances of Don Carlos were tremendous), and he stayed well away from the nice singing repertoire. But for his fans, his commitment to Mozart, Wagner and Janáček especially, more than made up for it. He avoided contemporary music, rarely directed a post-Shostakovich composer, but also explored some 20th-century British music. His recordings of the Elgar and Vaughan Williams symphonies still hold up well, and in Covent Garden he conducted both Britten’s Peter Grimes and Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage in Covent Garden.
In his distinctive and refined way, his performances of Debussy and Stravinsky were also at times exceptional, but it was as a performer of the conventional symphonic repertoire from Beethoven to Mahler that he stood out with all the orchestras he conducted, be it the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Dresden Staatskapelle, or the Boston or Chicago Symphonies. He had been a major driver of Mahler’s revival in the 1960s, completing a recorded cycle of symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra as early as 1971, and recording Bruckner’s canon in the same period as well, all half-century performances. they seem as convincing as ever.
But if I had to choose just one performance by Haitink that summed up his greatness, it would be the account of Mahler’s Third Symphony that he conducted with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Barbican in London in 2004. The Third was always a work that suited his musical virtues of frankness and exceptionally good structural integrity; that performance, so eloquent, so magnificently performed and without a moment of self-esteem, conveyed them incomparably. And in my experience, the man himself was like his composer of music, serious, sincere and direct; It was never about big public pronouncements or gestures to attract attention. There were times, especially when he was in Covent Garden during its difficult years in the 1990s, when a higher public profile and more obvious involvement in solving his problems might have been welcome, but it was always the music that He cared, and he always puts that first.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism