Sunday, October 24, 2021


 For people a generation or two older than me, Haitink's death feels literally like the end of an era. Herbert Blomstedt is technically older, but Bernard Haitink became a recording star at roughly the same time Leonard Bernstein did. I'm not that old, I can only view it from the perspective of some ancient seeming history I didn't live through, and even if I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Bernard Haitink was (my parents had LP's...), it still doesn't feel anywhere near as momentous as the death of Ligeti or Harnoncourt or or any musical giant who literally changed the axis of history.

The truth is that Zubin Mehta became a star right around the same time as Haitink, but if someone had told the average music lover in 1963 that Bernard Haitink would be considered the legend and Zubin Mehta the disappointing relic, they would be incredulous. Haitink was considered by many a young mediocrity given a large profile twenty years too early, who'd probably fade to the margins of concert life by the time of my birth twenty years later. But it was the very unassumingness and 'dullness' of Haitink that led generations to underestimate him. It makes the more generous souls work that much harder to be worthy of what they're given Nobody thought Haitink the most talented musician out there, least of all himself, and he clearly worked multiples as hard as more talented musicians who coasted on their natural abilities.
It took me a long time to properly appreciate Haitink. I still find that a lot of his music carries moderation to a point well past excess. You can almost hear the uptightness of his personality in the way he stays absolutely, imperturbably steady through every musical event.
But to have heard him live in the 70s and 80s must have been the experience of a lifetime - during his Concertgebouw heyday when he'd proven all the critics wrong, the recorded evidence shows a musician who literally made the air catch fire. Since those years also dovetail with his extended period with the London Philharmonic and Glyndebourne, this probably explains how beloved he became in England far more than his supposed 'British reserve.'
After he left the Concertgebouw, he was never quite the same. Some people love a lot of his operatic work, but except for the Mozart I was never particularly impressed. And for someone who's remembered as such a fine director at Covent Garden, it's pretty amazing that people have developed such fond memories after griping about him so much at the time.
What made him a grand old man was that he was a beloved guest around the world who reminded all manner of struggling organizations past their prime of the golden years they used to have. The great orchestras, by and large, are extremely volatile organizations, but a guy like Haitink or Blomstedt has been doing it for so long that they don't need to say anything at all. The moment you talk is the moment people can misinterpret what you say, so a guy like Haitink just made his hands go, said very little, and create a calm environment to let the musicians express themselves in manners they'd forgotten they could.
Was Haitink truly as legendary as his legend? Well... no. When you make hundreds of records, at least 100 of them better be indisputable classics, and Haitink falls well short of that. And every concertgoer has stories about the week Haitink was boring... that's not what made Haitink special.
What made Haitink special was precisely his longevity. It's no small feat to do a concert with a giant work every week for sixty years. He was the opposite of Bernstein or Tennstedt who left all the tears and adrenaline on the floor. He constructed everything like an architect, always terracing every dynamic, color, and instrumental balance in such a way that minimum of effort was expended until the exact moment it was needed, at which point the sound poured forth in climaxes so overwhelming that you wonder where that passion came from.
I remember hearing him conduct the LSO in Brahms 3, live at the Barbican. The first movement was not great, but then came the beautiful middle movements, along with some of the most miraculous soft playing I've ever heard. When it was time for the finale, you forgot the diffidence of the opening, and suddenly those F-Minor/Major explosions poured forth with force so massive that I gasped. This must have been Haitink's plan the whole time. I remember thinking 'this is not quite Brahms, but it's great all the same.' Brahms, to me, has more flow, more relaxation, more espressivo. The grandeur was very authentic, but perhaps more naturally suited to Bruckner.
To me, Bruckner is the center of Haitink's achievement, moreso even than Mahler or Shostakovich. Haitink simply 'got' Bruckner, and got him better than a lot of conductors better known for Bruckner. Other conductors expended every effort to make Bruckner sound profound and grand, but Haitink made Bruckner sound organic - he grew the music out of exactly what it needed. Every melody sang, every rhythm sprang, every color was applied with an ear to creating a Rembrandtine glow.
Listen to this Bruckner 5. The tempi are wonderfully chosen, but that's just the skeleton of this performance. The flesh is in the balance between all the inner lines and how Haitink gives clarity and weight to them all, as though every note is like a human being who deserves a space to be heard. Every voice is balanced to the point that you hear them all, but also balanced to the point of blend. It's one of those performances that you can hear from so many different vantage points and find reward: listen linearly to every voice and you hear literally everything. Listen for color and you hear more color here than anything in Rimsky-Korsakov. Listen for architecture and you find a performance plotted with all the care musicians usually give to the B-Minor Mass. Haitink didn't always reach the peak of this mountain, but a performance like this shows just how high Haitink aimed. He wanted musicmaking of the highest seriousness, that paradoxically takes in every element of what the music has to offer by staying outside of the music. It's very much an approach of his own era and generation. Like I said of Colin Davis, to whom he was sometimes (and not entirely accurately) compared, he was an emissary from a more stable era, who arrived at musical truth by a mysterious self-effacement and serenity that perhaps is not possible today in our more unstable, narcissistic world. His generation saw terrible things we didn't, and many of that period were chastened into not expressing things that were in any sense inessential, because neurosis over trivialities can destroy more than it creates. Perhaps we would do better to emulate their example a little more often.

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