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The set-up for Saturday’s Prom could hardly have looked less appropriate. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was giving the second of its two Proms with Bernard Haitink – an intellectually engaging programme exploring the link between Wagner at his most other-worldly and impressionist Debussy – but the arena had already been prepared for some other event later. In the centre was a large, square, raised-up area, roped off like a boxing ring. “Who is Haitink fighting tonight?”, quipped a friend.
The very idea seemed incongruous. As he nears 80, Haitink has never lost his reputation as the most uncomplaining and phlegmatic of conductors. That is why his gripping Beethoven symphony cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra last season came as such a surprise, revealing a new Haitink, invigorated by the bracing ideas of the period instrument movement.
There were no revelations of that kind on Saturday, only the unforced musicianship that one would expect from this partnership. Haitink, now the orchestra’s conductor laureate, spent 25 years as music director in Amsterdam and they must know each other’s performances backwards – enough to make Haitink shoot a look of surprise into the orchestra at a fluffed note early in the prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal. There were more fluffs to follow and some lax chording.
The two Debussy items went better. His Nocturnes, a triptych of poems in sound, was always a favourite of Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw and they still blend the subtle colours with warmth and impeccable taste. It was a good idea to follow that with the rarely-heard Six épigraphes antiques in an orchestration by Dutch composer Rudolf Escher, as the transparent chamber music textures lightened the atmosphere.
To close, Haitink led the players in a sturdy and passionate performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. How different that music would have sounded if the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s current chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, had been in charge.
By coincidence, Jansons will be at the Proms himself later this week with his other orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony, and so comparisons between the two are not far off. Let’s hope he will not choose to make a fight of it.
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