Thursday 24 September 2020

'A strange profession' - looking forward to John Bridcut's film, 'Bernard Haitink, the Enigmatic Maestro'

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 - Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2019 BBC Proms (Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 - Bernard Haitink, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2019 BBC Proms
(Photo BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

In 2019, Bernard Haitink CH KBE, turned 90, and announced his retirement from the concert platform with a series of performances of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, appearing at the BBC Proms with the Vienna Philharmonic [see Colin Clarke's review] and thus bringing an end to a 65-year career. On 26 September 2020, BBC Two broadcasts the premiere of John Bridcut's new film Bernard Haitink, the Enigmatic Maestro, and later on in this article, John Bridcut selects six of Bernard Haitink's most iconic recordings.

Haitink's career encompassed conductorships of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Staatskapelle Dresden, music directorships of Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It has been a career which has been, largely, conducted quietly, without fuss yet with devastating musicality. Bridcut's film aims to get behind the magic of this quiet Anglicised Dutchman.

The film follows Haitink's long career, using the farewell performances of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 as a thread on which to hang the entire career. And rather appropriately Haitink did his farewell performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 in the Netherlands with his first permanent orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.

Bridcut always seems to have a talent for getting musical personages to talk about themselves (witness his fine film portrait of Dame Janet Baker, broadcast in 2019). And Haitink's contribution to the film is not only significant, but illuminating, and he has a clear-sighted, rather delightfully downbeat view of his career, commenting at one point that he 'must have had talent, otherwise I would not have got all these chances but there were gaps in that talent and it took time to fill them'.

Bridcut has found a number of colleagues to talk about Haitink, so we hear from one of his school friends, a musician from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Rodney Friend who led the London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Cox from Glyndebourne and a number of musicians who have worked with him more recently, each providing a musician's eye view of what it was like to work with Haitink. And along with these we hear, fascinatingly, from two of Haitink's children.

There is much talk of how little he seemed to do, no elaborate gestures and little talk. This is something that I experienced when I sang in the choir for Haitink's first performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, with Richard Lewis as Gerontius. Lewis was notable exponent of role and made the classic recording with Sir John Barbirolli; at the time of the concert the singer was in his late 60s and had just recovered from a hip replacement, yet his performance was masterly. There was another historic element to the performance, the harpist was Sidonie Goossens, who had played under Elgar in the London Symphony Orchestra. Friends of the choir members were allowed to come to the dress rehearsal, and mine were somewhat disappointed; whilst the music making was outstanding, Haitink revealed little of himself and actually spoke little during rehearsals, relying on a minimal range of gestures and expressions to achieve his effect.

Other musicians in the film, with whom Haitink worked include Sir Thomas Allen,  who sang the title role in Don Giovanni and Beckmesser in Graham Vick's 1993 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Covent Garden [one of John Bridcut's selected recordings, see below], Dame Sarah Connolly who sang in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with Haitink, and composer Mark Anthony Turnage whose Chicago Remains was premiered in 2007 by Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for whom it was written. This latter might seem a rare excursion into contemporary music, except that Haitink points out that he did a significant amount of contemporary music early in his career.

With such a long career, some areas will be skated over and unsurprising that coverage of Haitink's time at Covent Garden is dominated by his dislike of Richard Jones' production of Wagner's Ring Cycle, inevitable perhaps given that much of this was captured in the 1995 documentary The House. Though I was pleased to note that Bridcut shows something of Haitink's balanced view, that one of the reasons he stayed with the production was the quality of the performances that Richard Jones drew from the performers. I remember Haitink being interviewed at the time, saying you could not separate the musical performance from what was happening on stage.

It will be, perhaps, for other medium to remember some of Haitink's other moments at Covent Garden, the revival of historic productions such as Verdi's Don Carlos (in French for the first time) originally directed in 1958 by Luchino Visconti, and Strauss' Arabella originally directed in 1965 by Rudolf Hartmann, not to forget Heather Harper's unforgettable farewell performance as Ellen Orford in Britten's Peter Grimes (with Jon Vickers as Grimes).

As with other Bridcut films, part of his knack at illuminating the subject is having people listening and commenting. It is clear that some of Haitink's comments are in reaction to viewing footage, whilst a number of performers give illuminating commentaries on Haitink's performances, a new way of bringing music alive on TV.

Both Haitink's parents had Jewish blood and the family suffered during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, though his father was lucky in that he did return from imprisonment. The documentary brings out Haitink's strong memories of this period, and hints at the strong emotional undercurrents to the enigmatic maestro.

A conductor standing in front of an orchestra is a somewhat odd idea. In the film, Haitink calls it 'a strange profession'. Bridcut's highly watchable film is well worth catching both for the way it illuminates this strangeness and captures something of Haitink's magic.

Favourite Haitink Recordings

Selected by John Bridcut, producer of Bernard Haitink, The Enigmatic Maestro, a Crux production for BBC2 (Saturday 26th September 7.30pm)

Walton: Symphony 1 in B flat minor (Philharmonia, 1981) This is one of my favourite symphonies of any century – it was Andre Previn and the LSO who introduced me to it. Bernard Haitink takes the massive first movement some two minutes slower than Previn, Colin Davis or Edward Gardner, but, my goodness, the tension he generates there is extraordinary.  The music is fit to burst – which it finally does in the amazing and unexpected resolution of the last few bars.

Something similar happens in his recording of Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Royal Opera House, 1997) where the Prelude to Act 3 is taken unusually slowly, but the angst in it is conveyed in the tension of those long chords.  The whole third Act (one of the miracles of all opera) is sheer delight.   This is a live recording of the Covent Garden performance in July 1997 which I was lucky enough to attend.  John Tomlinson as Hans Sachs, Nancy Gustafson as Eva, and Gosta Winbergh as Walther are a superb cast, and pathos, humour, glory and joy are there in equal measure – with the added advantage of being able to follow the text in detail, rather than rely on the inevitably potted version of surtitles in the theatre.

Haitink’s unerring sense of lyrical line, so evident in Wagner, is especially important in Bruckner: Symphony 7 in E major (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 2007) which I was fortunate to film him rehearsing and performing last year. He somehow always sees the big picture – never diverted by the many incidental excitements of Bruckner along the way, but striding onwards purposefully to the peak, or to the horizon.  He is a master at building a crescendo which never outruns itself, but he also delights in the intricate counterpoint in Bruckner’s scoring of quiet passages. Indeed, he seems to relish those more than the magisterial climaxes for which Bruckner is so famous.

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1975) The same grand vision is on display in this wonderful performance.  There is a Haitink energy which holds this disparate ‘symphony’ together, and links the explosive outbursts to the intricate delicacy of some of the woodwind writing, where it seems to be chamber music – and indeed Haitink allows each instrument solo status, charting its own path, without him ever losing his overall grasp of Mahler’s great work.  One look at the score reveals the immensely detailed and complex dynamics and expression marks – by which Mahler directs the balancing of the orchestra.  Haitink is faithful to these, but also allows himself discretion over the music’s natural ebb and flow.  With Janet Baker in superb voice, and James King holding his own in the strenuous first movement, this is a version second only to the great Bruno Walter recording with Kathleen Ferrier, and with of course greatly improved sound quality.

Haitink’s love of the orchestra is well attested by Debussy: Images (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1977) where the transparent textures he creates, and his wonderful sense of instrumental colour are unforgettable, particularly in ‘Les parfums de la nuit’. It’s fascinating that someone so steeped (and accomplished) in the Austro-German repertoire has such flair for French music, which he restored to the Concertgebouw’s repertoire after some years of neglect.  And the refinement of Debussy is essential for any orchestra’s amour-propre.

Bernard Haitink, The Enigmatic Maestro, producer John Bridcut, a Crux production for BBC2, is broadcast by BBC2 on Saturday 26th September 7.30pm, and is then available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • From Early English epic to music-theatre: Toby Young's Beowulf with the Armonico Consort and AC Academy choirs - CD review
  • Composing The Red Shoes: I chat to Terry Davies about creating the score for Matthew Bourne's ballet based on Bernard Herrmann's music - interview
  • Joel Lundberg's Music from a room - CD review
  • Intimate and forward-looking: Niccolò Jommelli's Requiem from Italian forces - Cd review
  • Of clocks, time and the hive mind: Martin Bussey's Timeless Figure and We Sing/I Sang at Tête à Tête  - opera review
  • The Heath Quartet at Wigmore Hall: late Bach and middle-period Beethoven  - concert review
  • Orchestral showcase: Simon Rattle conducts Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen on LSO Live - CD review
  • A one-man Paradise Lost and an uproarious contemporary operetta: Tête à Tête brings live opera back to the Cockpit  - opera review
  • The Telling's #HomeTour: soprano & playwright Clare Norburn on the challenges & rewards of creating on-line content & writing new plays  - interview
  • Late Haydn and Brahms on an Autumn evening in the park: Anthony Friend and the Solem Quartet at Battersea Park bandstand - concert review
  • Less is more: Andrew Hamilton's Joy  - CD review
  • Home

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