Bernard Haitink: Master Of Mahler And Bruckner Left Indelible Memories


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Bernard Haitink (1929-2021)

Bernard Haitink (1929-2021)

PERSPECTIVE — Bernard Haitink, who died Oct. 21 at age 92, was responsible for some of the most memorable performances I have attended over four decades of concert going.

I saw him with the touring Concertgebouw Orchestra on four occasions – twice in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium in 1982 and two more times at the same locale in 1985. The ensemble sounded absolutely flawless at all times, and we received an ample sampling of his objective yet ultimately powerful way with Mahler in the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. I particularly remember the Mahler Seventh, the greatest live performance of the piece that I’ve heard, one that laid out the at-the-edge-of-tonality strangeness of the score in fantastic detail for all to hear. The Fifth, as I re-read my notes, was also a great performance, with a wildness in spots that belied the placid image of the Dutch conductor.

Much later, during a trip to Vienna in 2004, I heard Haitink in Mahler’s Ninth at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic in the incredibly resonant acoustics of the Musikvereinsaal. I was seated to the rear of the orchestra facing the conductor, so I was able to see him in action head on. Truth to tell, there wasn’t much action to see, for he maintained a poker face throughout with minimal motions from his baton, yet one could sense that he was thoroughly in charge. And unlike virtually every other conductor I’ve seen live, after the Ninth was over and the audience was filing out of the hall, Haitink remained onstage for some time, casually chatting with some of the musicians.

Generally speaking, conductors who deal in the late Romantics tend to have an affinity for either Bruckner or Mahler, but rarely for both. Haitink was one of those who did (Zubin Mehta is another) — and his Bruckner cycle with the Concertgebouw on Philips (now Decca) still holds up well, wearing its cumulative power lightly. He also developed a passion for the Vaughan Williams symphonies later in his career — his calm authority served him well there — and I would imagine that his Decca Shostakovich symphony cycle, the first complete one to be recorded in the West, grew out of his experiences with Mahler.

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I summarized the Haitink Shostakovich cycle for the Shostakovich chapter in the book Third Ear: The Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books, 2002)— and here’s what I wrote, with just a bit of addenda in parentheses:

“Bernard Haitink’s cycle (with the London Philharmonic and Concertgebouw Orchestra) straddles the analog and digital ages and a large gap of perception. The early analog entries (Nos. 4, 10, 15) are uninteresting because the mild-mannered conductor simply lays out the architecture straight-forwardly without digging any further (although 10 has passages of fierceness). But starting with a deeply-felt, exciting 1979 Seventh, Haitink began to penetrate Shostakovich’s emotional world – and one wonders whether the release that year of Testimony (Shostakovich’s alleged memoir as dictated to Solomon Volkov) had something to do with Haitink’s volte-face.

“In any case, from this point onward, Haitink has a lot to say, and Decca’s engineering in London’s Kingsway Hall or in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw is nothing short of spectacular, to date the best sound these symphonies have ever received. The Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 and 12 are actually strengthened by this conductor’s cool head and organizing skills, but he can still loosen his tie and produce exciting playing in the Second’s central weirdness and even find dignity and grace in the Twelfth’s awful finale. He always builds toward well-thought-out yet passionate climaxes without quite going over the top in the Eighth, and just does capture the antic spirit of the Ninth; only the coda lacks sufficient ignition.

“There are relapses into indifference — an unexciting Fifth, the soft-grained attacks in the First. There is also controversy in the Fourteenth; while Haitink’s conducting is superb, with much drive and insight, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady sing the poems in the composer-sanctioned original languages, which feels wrong. In general, though, the further Haitink went into the cycle, the better he gets. He feels the pain of the Sixth’s Largo yet keeps it moving, gets the flippancy right in II, and though a little cautious, is vigorous enough in III. The Eleventh is the best thing in his cycle — loaded with orchestral weight, uninhibited fury, driving, thrusting rhythms, and a full sense of horror — and he finished the series with a massively fervent, Technicolor Thirteenth.

“Though the whole cycle is available in a mini-box (London 444 430, 11 CD), it’s better to cherry-pick among the reasonably-priced Decca Ovation single discs that have been widely imported here. (The box has since been reissued by Decca and remains available.)”

There is, of course, much more recorded Haitink to explore – a worthy Wagner Ring cycle from Munich that didn’t get as much attention at the time as it could have due to competition from the Met and Bayreuth; several Mozart and Verdi operas; complete sets of the Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies; more Bruckner live and in the studio that documented broadening, deepening conceptions over the years; a second, truncated Mahler cycle in Berlin (halted after Nos. 1-7); an excellent Mahler 3 from Chicago; and so much more. He is being hailed posthumously as one of the last old-fashioned maestros, yet there was nothing old-fashioned about his music making except, perhaps, that he was able to record, reconsider and re-record his repertoire at the prolific rate of Karajan, Solti and Bernstein. Haitink was the least flashy of the four, but his legacy looks to be just as enduring as theirs.


  1. It’s great to read Richard’s remembrances of Bernard Haitink’s performances. I’ve been dipping into the late Andrew Patner’s collection of reviews and interviews, “A Portrait in Four Movements: The Chicago Symphony under Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink, and Muti” (University of Chicago Press, 2019), which includes an account of the Dutch maestro’s 2006-2010 tenure as principal conductor of the CSO. Haitink was on the podium for four to six weeks a season during the interregnum between the music directorships of Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, and Andrew chronicles some of his inspirational forays into Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and Lutoslawski. Here’s an excerpt from his review of Bruckner’s C minor Eighth Symphony under Haitink:

    “We are guided through a story with many digressions and unexpected recoveries. As Austrian as Bruckner was, Haitink seems to marry him with that ultimate French narrator, Marcel Proust, to produce performances that must be viewed from different angles in space and time even to begin to comprehend them.”

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