The Haitink Weekend at Tanglewood, 2008: Beethoven and Mahler

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Christianne Stotijn and Bernard Haitink in Mahler's Second Symphony at TanglewoodChristianne Stotijn, Heidi Grant Murphy, and Bernard Haitink in Mahler's Second Symphony at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott
Christianne Stotijn and Bernard Haitink in Mahler's Second Symphony at TanglewoodChristianne Stotijn, Heidi Grant Murphy, and Bernard Haitink in Mahler's Second Symphony at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott

Tanglewood: The Haitink Weekend

Friday, July 11, 8:30 p.m., Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor
Jonathan Biss, piano
Julia Fischer, violin
Daniel Müller-Schott, cello

All-Beethoven Program
Triple Concerto for piano, violin, and cello, Op. 56
Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” Op. 68

Saturday, July 12, 8:30 p.m., Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink, conductor
Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano
Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor

Mahler, Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection”

It is worth remembering that Bernard Haitink became the chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the most prestigious positions in the musical world, in 1961 at the incredibly young age of thirty-two. Since even before then, up to the present day, he has continued to grow as a musician in his own discreet way, always maintaining a traceable thread back to the values of his early work—clarity, balance, and restraint—qualities, which in the end often proved much more affecting than the excesses of more histrionic conductors. He also showed a particular knack for long, complex symphonic works, working wonders in clarifying their texture and form. His performances of Bruckner’s symphonies on tour and on record made them accessible to a much broader audience outside Austria and Germany. Leonard Bernstein may have popularized Mahler with his intense but sometimes unbearably showy performances, but it was Haitink who made their best qualities more accessible by focussing on coherence in structure and in orchestral sound—a very handsome sound, which has often been described as the “burnished” Concertgebouw sound. It is really Haitink’s sound. None of his successors or predecessors have cultivated it to quite the same extent, and this burnished sound is what he brings to the BSO, especially in their present, improved condition. I still have a vivid recollection of his magnificent Eroica which closed the 2006-07 season in Symphony Hall. The BSO was able to produce that rich, homogeneous sound to perfection. With a full complement of strings there was both mass and fine detail: nothing was lost. The loudest tutti were as clear as the extraordinary pianissimi Haitink can extract from the orchestra.

This past weekend, I was not so much struck by the overall timbre of the orchestra as their responsiveness to Haitink’s direction. As good as it is, the Music Shed is hardly an acoustic replica of Symphony Hall. In spite of this, the shorter rehearsal time, and the ambient noises (although the audience, which was enormous both in and outside of the Shed, was on its best behavior), Haitink made no compromises in his refined and nuanced approach to orchestral playing.

The opening work on Friday, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, was a case in point. Both in respect to the solo trio and the orchestra, this was one of the most polished performances I have ever heard of the work, which is a curious one. Beethoven began writing it in early 1803 while he was at work on his Eroica Symphony and continued to work on it sporadically, as he turned his attention to his opera Leonore (the first version of Fidelio), as well as his Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas. In comparison the Triple Concerto seems  a rather conservative work, except for its expansive length. It was an occasional piece, commissioned by his pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, who was to play the piano part. The piano trio was, for Beethoven, as well as for other composers, a genre in which wealthy amateurs often played side by side with professionals, and this played a vital role in shaping the Triple Concerto. The other soloists were principles in Rudolph’s orchestra, among whom the cellist was an especially brilliant player. Hence Beethoven wrote a relatively easy, occasionally recessive, piano part against much more sophisticated and difficult parts for the others, especially the cellist.

Violinist Julia Fischer, cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, and pianist Jonathan Biss are young musicians, who pursue independent careers as solo musicians, and their common work as a chamber group is only a part of it. While they play with great sympathy as an ensemble, they play very much as individuals,  each bringing a strong musical personality to the group—and many-sided personalities at that. While they can play with great refinement and poise, even politeness, one might say, they have reserves of powerful energy and fire. I should note, however, that the Triple Concerto gave Jonathan Biss, as the Archduke Rudolph’s stand-in, much less scope for self-expression than the others.

Furthermore, the three young musicians were in absolute harmony with their conductor’s approach. Haitink provided a large orchestral background, but one of great nuance as well. The pianissimo opening bars were so quiet, I was surprised that they carried so well in the music shed, and this was not the last marvel of very quiet playing we heard during the evening. Haitink decided to group first and second violins together, with violas in the fore on the right. The violinists at the farther desks were on risers. In any case, this grouping had no adverse effect on clarity, and Mr. Haitink seemed to get the results he wanted.

As the work progressed, the soloists kept the first movement contained within the etiquette of salon music, although salon music of a robust character. They took the largo as an ample space in which to unfold. Fischer and Müller-Schott played with increasingly warm expression and subtle dynamics and color. It is a tribute to the Music Shed that some of these subtleties were even audible. Finally, in the Rondo alla Polacca, they let themselves go, playing with boisterous energy and muscular attacks, but never abandoning their control of detail. This was a truly outstanding performance of a work which is not all that easy to bring off and has not always received such intelligent and sophisticated treatment.

As in his Eroica, Haitink endowed the Pastoral Symphony with the quality of immense scope and breadth without taking an unduly slow tempo or resorting to pretentious gestures. He takes his Beethoven seriously, but not ponderously. In fact one could say that Haitink’s balance goes beyond his seemingly perfect sense of the weighting of instrumental choirs to a more metaphysical sense of balance. His Beethoven is “centered,” as the folks at Kripalu across the street would say. The Romantic impression of vastness in Haitink’s Pastoral arises partly from its extended dynamic range. The quietest passages seemed to reach pppp. At moments in the slow movement and the coda of the finale the music was almost inaudible, but it created the feeling of tremendous distance, as if a shepherd’s pipe were heard from the far end of a mountain valley. On the other hand, Mr. Haitink, while respecting the symphony’s programmatic nature, discouraged the BSO players from any kind of imitative effect. The BSO winds sounded just like the winds of a great symphony orchestra and nothing else. This was especially notable in the marvelous playing of the bird calls in the final bars of the slow movement. Beethoven actually identifies the calls in his score, but how convincing they sound, if the flute just sounds like a flute and the oboe sounds like and oboe, and likewise the clarinet and so forth! This is not literalism, but rather the distance of a poetic creation. The Pastoral is not a direct imitation of nature, but an aural expression of the feelings the country arouses in the composer, and in that respect their proper realm is the concert hall, the nineteenth century orchestra and its descendants. The BSO, for that matter, sounded as splendid as ever, and the performance was greeted not only with fully committed applause from the audience, but with grateful applause from the orchestra for their distinguished Conductor Emeritus.

Mr. Haitink’s weekend with the BSO concluded Saturday evening with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. It is interesting to consider Mahler’s Second in the context of the Pastoral Symphony. The Mahler is an equally referential work, equally rooted in the experience of nature, at least in its overtly bucolic second movement. One could even say that the Pastoral Symphony was a model. However, Mahler is much more specific about how the instruments of the orchestra should be played. In the second movement, in which rustic scene-painting suggests the experience of earthly life, he specifies all sorts of explicitly imitative effects, not only of the sounds of nature, but of the popular music he and his listeners heard out in the open. Mahler framed this with two monumental outer movements which refer beyond the world of visible nature to a spiritual plane where a drama of life and death is played out, as well as the fourth movement, Urlicht, in which he seems to touch the center of cosmic existence. On the other hand, as Michael Steinberg’s excellent program note makes clear, Mahler had ambivalent feelings about programmatic interpretations of his works. While he made up programmatic descriptions for patrons, critics, and fellow-musicians, he openly deplored the practice, calling it “a crutch for a cripple.” Even the seemingly indelible title “Resurrection” is not original. The only indications for the Second Symphony which are really sound are that Mahler composed the first movement as a sort of Totenfeier (Memorial), complete with heroic death march, and the last as a depiction of the Last Judgement for soprano, mezzo-soprano and chorus. Between them there is the pastoral interlude, a movement derived and expanded from Mahler’s setting of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn song about St. Anthony’s sermon to the fishes, and the solemn Urlicht, a setting of another Wunderhorn text. By simply following the character, notations, and texts of the five movements, we can easily see that there is considerable ambiguity in the Second Symphony’s programmatic character.

On Saturday evening Bernard Haitink followed the conservative path he has always adhered to. He concentrates on balance, clean playing, steady tempo, and clarity. The instruments of the orchestra always sound like themselves, as I mentioned in connection with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. In this way, Haitink allows us to receive Mahler’s music in its own terms, as we perceive it. Overall, the orchestral sound was the beautiful “burnished” sound I have described, but attacks were strong and gritty, without lapsing from this basic quality. Haitink’s tempo in the first movement was deliberate, even in the “collapsing” downward plunge in the final bars. The second movement moved along perhaps a bit more fluently than some others. Urlicht was almost static, splendidly sung with deep conviction by  the wonderful Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn. In the final movement she was joined by soprano Heidi Grant Murphy and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, magnificent as always. In both movements Ms. Stotijn, who has a rich, focused mezzo voice of extraordinary beauty, sang entirely from the heart, as if she felt every phrase at the core of her being. Hedi Grant Murphy sang with equal conviction and expressiveness in her expansive soprano. Vocally, this movement was an experience never to be forgotten. (That I can be discussing Christianne Stotijn’s performance at Tanglewood on July 12 and my friend and colleague, Huntley Dent can review her Wigmore Hall recital on July 14, speaks not so much for the wonders of air travel as for the astounding ability of the human organism to adapt to jet lag.)

Every year at Tanglewood there are a few supremely treasurable performances. This was surely one of them.

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