Bernard Haitink: 50 Years with The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Page first published November 8, 2006 - Synopsis in het Nederlands




Gold for
Bernard Haitink













Bernard Haitink as a youngster, more than 50 years ago. (Picture taken from Philips Lp record 835 309 LY with Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's A Midsummer Night's Dream).
Debussy "Jeux" and "Trois nocturnes" (Philips 9500 674), "Trois images pour orchestre" and "Danse sacrée et danse profane" (Philips 9500 509), Mahler Symphony No. 7 (1983, Philips 410-398-1).
Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 (Decca SXDL 7621), Brahms Concerto No. 1 with pianist Vladimir Askenazy (Decca SXDL 7552), Ravel "Rapsodie espagnol", "Ménuet antique", Alborada del gracioso" and "Valses nobles et sentimentales" (Philips 9500 347).
Beethoven's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 with pianist Claudio Arrau (Philips 835 284): sensitive playing and perfect timing.
There are many recordings made with the London Philharmonic Orchestra: Liszt (Symphonic Poems), Rimsky-Korsakov (Scheherazade), and the Symphonies of Shostakovich. Listen to all of these and especially No. 1.






When Bernard Haitink became conductor of the (Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra, the record business was entering a new era, that of the stereo LP which was much more attractive because of the new realism it was providing. Ever since Eduard van Beinum switched from Decca to Philips, the Concertgebouw Orchestra had replaced the Residency Orchestra and its conductor Willem van Otterloo and had become the principal orchestra for the Philips label (Polygram) to make recordings with; along with the London Philharmonic. When consulting the Discography of the Concertgebouw Orchestra it is clear that a large catalog was being recorded in the nineteen sixties en seventies. And most of the time it was with Bernard Haitink conducting. He recorded Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and the vast projects of the Symphonies of Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner were undertaken. The position of Bernard Haitink as principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra was of a great significance and Haitink recorded with the orchestra even after he had left.
The making of the many recordings, in addition to an intensive directorship performing the programs for concert goers, took time to be realized. Especially for the planned Mahler and Bruckner cycles. If several symphonies were not yet recorded by Haitink, Philips issued recordings with other conductors as a temporary measure. That is why the Mahler 8th with Maurice Abravanel was licensed from Vanguard as long as there was no Haitink performance recorded. Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 performed by Vaclav Neumann and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra were licensed from Eterna (VEB Deutsche Schallplatten in the German Democratic Republic), with which Philips did have a contract before Eurodisk did. The performance by Wyn Morris of Symphony No. 10 (in the version of Deryck Cooke) was recorded in Great Britain and also issued on Philips. And there was a Bruckner No. 6 with the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Heinz Bongartz, again licensed from Eterna.

Conductor Bernard Haitink and soprano Christine Schaefer came down the red carpeted stairs to receive the long and loud ovation. The audience lost count of how many times they asked the artists, and especially Bernard Haitink, to come forward again and again at the end of the jubilee concert entitled 'Gold for Bernard Haitink' (Goud voor Bernard Haitink). The concert was given to celebrate and to commemorate his 50 year liaison with the Concertgebouw Orchestra: November 7, 1956 - November 7, 2006.

There was also much praise for the musicians in the orchestra, especially the clarinetists and the brass section. Photographers were taking pictures when the artists took their bows and also when Haitink climbed the conductor's podium. After so many times climbing up the stairs and coming down again, Haitink gave the impression of being somewhat annoyed as if he wanted to say: "Now it is enough", it was as if he asked at the same time the question: "Why didn't you appreciate me conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra more in the years before?"

He certainly would not say this, because he knows that a high percentage of the music loving crowd of Amsterdam and of the entire Dutch nation always have admired the maestro's art right from the beginning when he, as a twenty seven year old, for the first time stood in front of the magnificent instrument which the Concertgebouw Orchestra is.

On November 7th, 1956, he substituted for Carlo Maria Giulini. And when Eduard van Beinum had died in 1959, he became principal conductor of the orchestra, a post he shared with Eugen Jochum for several years.

Maybe already in the beginning there were musicians who had ideas of their own and some may have worked somewhat reluctantly with the very young conductor. Although the relationship seemed prosperous, in the end they made Haitink leave the orchestra, in 1988. He settled in England. From there he went to conduct other world-orchestras, with great success.

In the nineteen sixties there also was the younger generation, rebelling against the dusty establishment of conservatism as they saw it. They formed the so called "Nutcracker action group" ("Aktie Notenkraker"). Now many of those rebels have earned themselves recognition, and one would expect them to recognize Haitink's qualities and achievements as well. Many do. It is however pathetic that one of these rebels, Reinbert de Leeuw, who is a much appreciated performer himself (remember his Satie, Liszt and Schoenberg), is rather limited in his appreciation of other music styles than the ones he himself is interested in. He still cannot recognize the importance of Haitink as a conductor, he fails to appreciate what Haitink did for Dutch culture and he does not recognize his international significance, as he told in a recent newspaper interview.

Times have changed however and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has changed too, not in discipline, not in tonality, not in balance and skill. On the contrary. Now there are many young musicians in all instrumental sections and the old core has left.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of 'laureate conductor' Haitink's relationship with the orchestra, several concerts were planned.
Webern's Passacaglia, Songs by Strauss, and Mahler's 4th Symphony were on the program of November 1, 2, 3 and 5.
'Das Lied von der Erde' with contralto Anna Larsson and tenor Robert Dean Smith, and again Mahler's Fourth with Christine Schäfer, were scheduled for Tuesday November 7th, the actual date of Haitink's 50th anniversary. I was lucky enough to obtain a seat for this concert.

The choice of soloists for 'Das Lied' was maybe not the luckiest, as especially 'Der Abschied' needs a somewhat more mature personality one would say, mentally and physically. It is not fair to make comparisons, but a singer of the stature of Christa Ludwig (who sang an extraordinary Abschied with Herbert Von Karajan at the end of the nineteen seventies), or of the stature of a Nan Merriman (singing decades ago together with Ernst Haefliger under Bruno Walter and Eduard Van Beinum respectively, and much later still with good intentions with Eugen Jochum conducting), would have given more depth to the dramatic and moving 'Die Sonne scheidet hinter dem Gebirge...' and 'Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz'.

It also seemed that the first Song of the Earth (Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde) did not set off as desired. Haitink, the ACO and the tenor apparently had to warm up and the performance was gradually gaining in impact, although the question remains: How drunk do you have to be to sing 'Der Trunkene im Frühling'? Robert Dean Smith certainly was not playful enough. It is Fritz Wunderlich with Otto Klemperer who made the recording that set the standard for all other performances.

It must be said that there could be some tension, a slight hesitation, as the performance needed to be impeccable as this concert was being recorded for release on The Concertgebouw Orchestra's own CD label since they do not have a contract with Philips or Decca any longer. Nothing should go wrong!

Not a rhapsodic approach, but the structure and a broad concept is Haitink's strength as was already clear in the perfectly balanced sounds in the first bar of 'Der Abschied' which did not fail to move the audience.
Bernard Haitink seems to be at his best in the slower movements where he can build up tension and reach a surprising climax.
That is - in my view - part of the essence of Bernard Haitink's style which he shows in Bruckner and Shostakovich as well.

During a concert in the late nineteen eighties, room had to be made for the grand piano on which Horacio Guttierrez was going to play a Prokofiev concerto. A few players came down the stage and sat next to me at the long side of the hall. I asked a cello player his opinion about the new, principal conductor Riccardo Chailly. And what about the years with Bernard Haitink? He said that the strength of Haitink was that he generally did not waste too much time on rehearsals and omitted extensive talks, but kept much of the energy for the actual performance in the evening. And, he said, then it often would happen that everybody got inspired and the performance got this special quality of creation on that moment, then and there.

Many concert goers certainly do know that this is the case, also during many a recording session. For example in Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony. Or Mahler's 6th and 7th symphonies on Philips records, in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Vladimir Ashkenazy on the Decca label, and with other orchestras as in Brahms's Alto Rhapsody (Orfeo), and many more instances. Many music listeners do remember that in Rimsky Korsakov's 'Scheherazade' with the London Symphony, in the third movement ('The Prince and the Princess), Haitink really unfolds a love affair and adds intensity to the score. And in 'Jeux' (Debussy) he knows how to bring about a gloomy, esoteric atmosphere. And don't forget the beginning of Liszt's Second Piano Concerto and the slow movement in the First recorded with Alfred Brendel and the LSO. Numerous are the examples.

Haitink does not have the aggressiveness of a conductor like Solti, nor does he have the youthfulness of an extrovert Bernstein. Haitink's treatment of fierce and wild movements remain organized, even in the frenzy build up of Liszt's First Concerto with Alfred Brendel, a recording you should definitely have on the shelve. And how wonderfully strong and structured are 'Images pour orchestre" of Claude Debussy and 'Alborada del gracioso' of Maurice Ravel. There are too many recordings to cherish. And there are of course his Mahler, Shostakovich and above all his Bruckner.

'Der Abschied' and the third movement of Mahler's 4th (Ruhevoll - poco adagio) are Haitink's best playground. In the Fourth Symphony he knows to expose the wonderful weirdness of the colorful orchestration of themes, reminding us of Vienna, of klezmer music, of the folk songs of the people in the mountains of Tyrol so to speak.
In the performance of the 4th movement in the anniversary concert, both Bernard Haitink and Christine Schäfer had a complete understanding and there was a remarkable mutual appreciation while the conductor was giving her all the mental and musical support which she fully enjoyed.

I am not the person who likes the streamlined sound in a small frame so often produced by certain costly electronics and loudspeaker systems. Having known the impact of a large symphony orchestra since I was eleven years old when I sang in the boys choir of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in a town in the country, I have an audio system which can be loud at times and will also produce some distortion, the same level you can get when sitting somewhere in the first ten rows in the Concertgebouw. I have heard performances while being seated at the far end of the hall. They did not have much impact because the high frequencies had no strength and were drowning in the carpet of people in their chairs.

Well, let me tell you, the impact of the concert was also very high because my seat was just in front of the violins and at a fair distance from the bass players. The tonal balance was perfect, warm and detailed, except for the soloists who were singing more or less over the heads of those seated in the first rows.
It was a wonderfully sounding concert of a magnificent orchestra led by the "conductor laureate", Bernard Haitink.
Many are looking forward to the next concert of the maestro with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Eventually I will add more LPs to this page for the lovers of vinyl (even if it concerns digital recordings), with performances (not necessarily with the Concertgebouw Orchestra) I personally like.

Rudolf A. Bruil - November 8, 2006




50 Jaar met het Concertgebouworkest:

7 november 1956 - 7 november 2006.

Dirigent Bernard Haitink en sopraan Christine Schäfer werden steeds weer terugeroepen door het enthousiaste publiek dat onder de indruk was van de uitvoering van de Vierde Symfonie van Gustav Mahler. Alle égards waren ook voor de fantastisch spelende musici van het Concertgebouworkest, met name de kopersectie ontving applaus.
Maar na zo vaak trap-op-trap-af en telkens weer buigen voor het publiek, leek de eredirigent een klein beetje geirriteerd, alsof hij wilde zeggen: "Nou is het wel genoeg." En:... "Waarom brachten jullie in vroeger jaren niet wat meer waardering op." Natuurlijk wilde Bernard Haitink dat niet zeggen omdat hij zeker weet dat Nederland hem waardeert, en dat ook componisten en uitvoerend kunstenaars hem waarderen, een enkele uitzondering daargelaten. Zo'n uitzondering is Reinbert de Leeuw die in het Parool zei dat hij met Haitink en diens muziek niets ophad.

Op dezelfde avond van die 7e november 2006 werd ook "Das Lied von der Erde" uitgevoerd
met sopraan Anna Larsson en tenor Robert Dean Smith. Alhoewel een vergelijking met de opnamen door Klemperer met Christa Ludwig en Fritz Wunderlich en die van Karajan met Christa Ludwig en René Kollo - die als referentieuitvoeringen gelden - Larsson en Smith enigszin tegenvallen, was het een zeer mooie uitvoering waarbij "Der Abschied" zeer ontroerde, vooral door het prachtige spel van het orkest. "Der Abschied" kreeg bij de inzet de warme, diepgaande toon. Haitink is een meester het opbouwen en styleren van langzame delen. Het derde deel in de 4e symfonie was een perfecte versmelting van Weense sfeer, van kletzmer muziek, en van volksliedachtige motieven uit de Oostenrijkse bergen.
Een aantal jaren geleden sprak ik met een paar musici. Toen de concertvleugel voor pianist Horacio Guttierez die een concert van Prokofiev zou vertolken geplaatst moest worden namen enkele even plaats op stoelen onder het balcon, naast mij. Er ontstond een kort gesprek over de kwaliteiten van verschillende dirigenten: Mariss Jansons, een goede organiosator, Riccardo Chailly, werkt precies, en Haitink.... De cellist vertelde me dat Haitink goed repeteerde, maar als het ware de energie voor de avond bewaarde en dan kon een uitvoering uitstijgen boven het prefecte spel en werd het een geinspireerde vertolking.

Dat is zeker wat veel muziekliefhebbers ook in het verleden ervaren hebben. Niet alleen gedurende een live concert met muziek van Mahler, maar ook in opnamen van het Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest (en andere orkesten) met Bernard Haitink. Zo kan het voorkomen dat in de 5e Symfonie van Tsjaikovsky opeens een ongekende bewogenheid en diepgang wordt bereikt, dat in "Jeux" van Claude Debussy een esoterische sfeer wordt opgeroepen, dat de langzame delen in de pianoconcerten van Franz Liszt met Alfred Brendel en het Londens Symfonieorkest prachtig zingen en in Scheherazade van Rimsky-Korsakov in het derde deel van innige liefde sprake is en Haitink drama aan het geheel geeft en meer dan alleen een mooi geinstrumenteerde partituur weergeeft. Neem de 7e Symfonie van Mahler, de 8e Symfonie van Shostakovich... Trouwens in snelle, luidruchtig-felle delen munt hij evenzeer uit, zoals te horen is in het opzwepende samenspel met Brendel in de snelle delen van (alweer) de Liszt concerten. Dit zijn slechts enkele voorbeelden. In de komende tijd zal ik nog een aantal opnamen noemen van de ere dirigent van het Concertgebouworkest, opnamen die ik persoonlijk tekenend vind voor Bernard Haitink en die ik zeer waardeer.


Page first published November 8, 2006.

NOSTALGIA: Violinists on 7" 45 rpm

Audio & Music Bulletin


Audio&Music Bulletin - Rudolf A. Bruil, Editor - Copyright 1998-2007 by Rudolf A. Bruil and co-authors