Wednesday 4 September 2019

An unforgettable night; a true slice of history in the making: Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic & Emmanuel Ax at the BBC Proms

Prom 60 - Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 60 - Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Op. 58, Bruckner Symphony No. 7 in E; Emanuel Ax (piano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 3 September 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
For the first of its concerts at the Proms this year, Bernard Haitink conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra he first conducted in 1972

Prom 60: Bernard Haitink conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms on 3 September 2019 in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with Emmanuel Ax, and Bruckner's Symphony No. 7.

At the age of 90, after a career of 65 years, this was what was almost certainly Bernard Haitink’s final UK appearance. The respect between conductor and orchestra ever palpable (and how enthusiastically they joined in the final, standing ovation), this was a concert for the ages, one to live in the memory forever – it is not fanciful to put it up there with Bernstein’s Barbican Mahler Ninth with the Concertgebouw in the 1980s. Ahead of these concerts at one of the rehearsals, (he conducts this programme again on Friday in Lucerne), the Vienna Philharmonic presented Haitink with honorary membership of the orchestra – he first conducted them in 1972.

With a serenely spread G major chord, Emanuel Ax launched a gloriously unrushed reading of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. This piece is part of the life blood of Haitink, Ax and the Vienna Philharmonic; but there was not a shred of complacency around this performance. The conversations between piano and wind were impeccably judged (Sophie Dervaux’ bassoon a first among equals), Haitink’s gestures honed to a minimum, followed to a tee by the orchestra, ensured perfect ensemble between soloist and orchestra. Murray Perahia had been the mouth-watering billing for soloist initially, but had withdrawn due to illness, sadly; Ax is no second-best, it turned out, his articulation an absolute joy, nowhere more so that in the first movement cadenza (the more extended one by Beethoven), perfectly judged, its continuation magical, string pizzicato absolutely together.

Prom 60 - Emmanuel Ax, Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Prom 60 - Emmanuel Ax, Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - BBC Proms
(Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

If the central movement is Orpheus taming the beast, it was Orpheus’ serene philosophising that did the trick. Ax’ beautifully toned chords were musings of the greatest profundity against what is surely the greatest string sound on our planet: full, ripe. The journey of this movement seemed more exploratory than most, Ax’s astonishing trills towards the close exuding the vibratory energy of late Beethoven, strings daring the rarest of pianissimi, Ax’s penultimate note hanging in the air like a rare jewel, suspended, before finally resolving. Hard-sticked timpani underscored the active finale, a different sort of vibrancy, bright yet somehow simultaneously imbued with a wisdom of the ages. Ax’s pedal work was a miracle in creating textural strata, but perhaps it was the dovetailing between soloist and orchestra that was so impressive. This was chamber music of the finest calibre, the woodwind colourings at the close of the movement leaving us wondering if anyone, anywhere, does this better?

This was actually the second time Ax and Haitink have performed this concerto together at the Proms, the other in 1997; it was Ax’s third performance in total of this concerto at the festival. A wonderful performance; and a perfectly crafted encore, too, Schubert’s Moment musical in A flat, Op. 142/2. Worth noting that, as the youngster of the pair, Ax had turned 70 this year (celebrated by a Wigmore concert in June). The wisdom of Ax and Haitink - combined age 160 - cannot be doubted.

Nothing, though, could have prepared one for the sheer magnificence of Haitink’s Bruckner Seventh (Novak edition), his sixth account at the Proms. In a wonderful congruence, this is Haitink’s 90th Prom; his first, in 1966, closed with this very symphony (the full list of Haitink’s previous performances is 1966, 1994, 1997, 2000 and 2004). What a way to come full circle in a performance of the utmost wisdom. Conducting from a very low rostrum, the opening melody seemed to go on forever; the term ‘long-breathed’ does it no justice whatsoever. The entry of the horns when the first violins enter, at the apex of the first phrase, was supremely judged; one of the myriad tiny details, cells, even, that made up the greater organism. Lovingly sculpted yet with scrupulous attention to the score, brass crescendi and diminuendi perfectly calibrated, climaxes radiant, all this was shaped by the Haitink’s firm rhythmic grasp. The first movement coda was a shaft of light.

The Adagio was heart-rending. Fairly fast from a metronomic point of view, Haitink actually gave it all the space it needed to shine. A perfect harmonic grasp of Bruckner’s processes (including one notoriously tricky quiet brass chorale-like passage leading in to the Moderato) gave the music a perfect sense of inevitability, that Moderato the perfect blossoming. That absolute rhythmic steadiness imbued this panel of the work with a supreme nobility, the awareness of Bruckner’s contrapuntal workings taking on an almost liturgical mantle. Yes, there was a crowning cymbal crash; the music seemed to slowly dissemble thereafter, leading to those glorious brass ruminations. The famous coda found the Vienna Wagner tubas in simply astonishing form (the preternaturally long final note for the first Wagner tuba, over eight long bars held, as far as I could tell, with no cheeky intermediary breaths and perfectly sustained right to the close).

Delineation of texture in the Scherzo (‘Sehr schnell’ but with every utterance telling) and terracing of dynamics (full dynamic range) led to maximal contrast in the Trio, a place of repose in which the violins just sang, a truly blissful pastoral idyll. Thankfully, no applause after the movement’s final gesture, just the sprightly dotted rhythms of the finale, a movement that juxtaposed the most tensile strength with moments of extreme string beauty. A mention for contributions from the flautist Karin Bonelli in particular, perhaps, but it almost seems wrong to single out individual excellence. Haitink’s broadening before the final perorations enabled the Vienna’s blazing last moments to make an especially potent effect; the silence after the final blaze of light telling, even the Prommers’ blunted into silence as the final chords rang on.

Tomorrow night, the VPO is again at the Proms, this time with Andrés Orozco-Estrada at the helm; thence to Lucerne for two concerts and Haitink’s final public bows. But this Bruckner 7 crowned an unforgettable night; a true slice of history in the making.
Reviewed by Colin Clarke

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