Tag Archives: Wagner

Prom 60 Photo:Chris Christodoulou


BBC Proms 3 September 2019 Beethoven Piano Concerto No.4, Bruckner Symphony No.7       Vienna Philharmonic, soloist: Emanuel Ax, conductor: Bernard Haitink

Last year it was announced that Bernard Haitink was going to take a sabbatical. A sabbatical at 90?

It turned out to be a false rumour. Haitink is simply retiring. One of this and last century’s top conductors is quitting.

Haitink initially claimed he was going to take a sabbatical because he wanted to avoid official farewell concerts. It reflects his naturally shy character. In June Haitink conducted his last concert at the Concertgebouw. But it was not the resident Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) that accompanied his last concert in the building where his career started. Haitink made his debut in 1956 with the Concertgebouworkest (without the royal prefix in those days) but became the chief conductor of the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest in 1957. It was with that orchestra he decided to play his final concert in the Netherlands, rather than the much more famous band ( RCO) where he was at the helm for 27  years!

Photo:Chris Christodoulou

The maestro has already said his goodbyes in Munich (with the  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra) and Chicago, where his tenure as chief conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is remembered fondly.There will be one more final concert this Friday 6 September in Lucerne where he will conduct the same programme that we were treated to in London.

Surely it is no fluke that this Prom was Haitink’s 90th. His first  appearance at the Royal Albert Hall  was in 1966 and that time Bruckner’s 7th symphony was on the bill, just like the other night. Surely not a deliberate choice as Haitink recently has been conducting that symphony everywhere he went.

So, why has he not said his goodbyes to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra where he learnt his trade and helped to develop an elite orchestra  with a an international reputation.  Haitink has been hurt in the past. Perhaps at times a little bit too easily. But it must be said that the Concertgebouw Orchestra , that probably owe their Royal title to him, have at times treated him badly. In 1988 Haitink left Amsterdam because he felt no support or appreciation from the orchestra management.   But it must be said that Haitink became an even better conductor after he left his home country. He had already been the artistic director at Glyndebourne when he became music director at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden  (1987 – 2002).  Despite some real triumphs,  particularly with Wagner operas, he never saw himself as an opera conductor. “I am a conductor who conducts operas”, he said in one interview. “Antonio Pappano, that is a real opera person”. But he admits conducting opera enriched his music making.  The Dutch didn’t have a dedicated opera house until the Stopera (Het Muziektheater) opened in Amsterdam in 1986. But Haitink was never invited to conduct there.

Haitink says that opera never used be  part of the Dutch DNA and I think he is right (having grown up in Holland in the 70s and 80s). Things have changed and that is very much to Pierre Audi’s credit (he was artistic director of the Dutch National Opera until 2018).

If this was indeed Haitink’s last London concert, and he hasn’t ruled out that at short notice he could replace a colleague who has fallen ill, it was almost as good as you could have ever wished. It helps that the Vienna Phil  in this kind of repertoire is virtually unbeatable.

photo: Chris Christodoulou

Emanuel Ax replaced Murray Perahia and I don’t  think you will today find a better interpreter of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto (well, Perahia may be equally good).  There was a slightly comical moment as the maestro and Ax entered ( to a roaring, roof-lifting applause). Ax helped Haitink up on the rostrum, but from my position, facing the stage at a slight angle, I could only see the back of his head. The rest of the conductor was hidden behind the  gi-normous grand piano that had its lid up to the max.  So, it was impossible to see what Haitink was up to during the Beethoven concerto.  But Ax  didn’t leave Haitink or the orchestra out of his sight, that much was clear.  Ax was careful not to stamp too much ego on the performance and I can imagine that some people would  criticise Ax for not breaking the mould at any point. The long cadenza at the end of the first movement was magnificent ( not sure who wrote it).

It is well known that Bruckner composed cathedrals. They were musically fairly simple and straightforward, and clearly constructed by an organist. He worked with blocks of sound and you can at times in the orchestration hear the contrasting registers and manuals of an organ in full flow . The long-breathed harmonic idiom takes a leaf out of Wagner’s book. Particularly in the seventh symphony the Austrian doesn’t seem to want to detach himself from his German idol. The symphony was dedicated to King Ludwig II, Wagner’s most important supporter.  The Adagio was composed ” in memory of the highly blessed, profoundly revered, immortal master” (i.e. Wagner, who died in Venice during the composing process).

The first movement’s 22-bar main theme (cellos, horn and violas to start with), with its ascending fourths and fifths, is reminiscent of the prelude of Das Rheingold . In the Adagio we hear for the first time the four distinctive Wagner tubas (that can also be heard in (Das Rheingold) And yet, despite these almost-quotations the seventh symphony is without a doubt a masterpiece. It is full of hummable long lines and some clever contrapuntal  treatment of the main theme. Bruckner certainly isn’t afraid of a repeat when he has found a good tune. Bruckner was deeply religious and it is claimed that you can hear it in his seventh. It is possible to stress that point, but Haitink has no truck with religion. The religious works were never Haitink’s forte. So, this interpretation was not a solemn, elegiac poem to the memory of Wagner (who died while Bruckner composed this symphony). Nor was it a played like Haitink’s symbolic Abschied to the concert stage. Haitink and the Vienna Phil actually gave a fairly straight, or rather ‘nuchter’ (that is sober with a Dutch tinge) performance. Yes, there was splendour and grief, but also a very forceful scherzo and if you closed your eyes you could have imagined the orchestra dancing its way through the finale.

As always, at least during the past 4 or 5 decades, Haitink conducted with restraint. The right hand as firm as ever,  mainly moving in front of the body. The left hand only occasionally indicating a change of dynamics, an articulation or encouragement to an individual. Haitink is also very good at picking out and signalling individual musicians with his eyes.  But there are no superfluous hand gestures, the music flows out of his arms , musicians seem to read his intentions instinctively.  Niks, geen kapsones, as they say in Dutch (no haughtiness or vanity) . After 65 years at the helm, Haitink surely is every musician’s dream conductor. And now he is almost gone (but not dead!!), leaving a huge musical space that eventually will be filled with conductors that hopefully have studied this absolute maestro in action.

A long last walk down the Royal Albert Hall corridor.
Photo:Chris Christodoulou
Sir Mark Elder conducting the Hallé


The Hallé is one of  Britain’s oldest orchestras and it is no surprise that they have championed many compositions at an early stage, before they became true classics.

The orchestra’s founder, Charles Hallé, put Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture on the repertoire (in the 1860s?). Under Hans Richter’s stewardship (1899-1911) the Manchester audiences would have heard quite a lot of Wagner. After all, Richter worked closely with the composer and conducted the first performance of the Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. Therefore the Hallé can claim that it has Wagner in its DNA, a fact that the orchestra’s current Music Director Sir Mark Elder is well aware of. Elder is an expert Wagnerian and member of a select group of British conductors that have conducted at the Festspiele Bayreuth. The orchestra recently performed Siegfried, thereby completing its presentation of the Ring Cycle while at the same time consolidating its reputation as one of the foremost Wagner orchestras in the land.

At home with the Wagners. Wahnfried in Bayreuth. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
At home with the Wagners. Wahnfried in Bayreuth. photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Prom 16 saw the Hallé present the original Dresden version (1845) of the Tannhäuser overture. The horns, clarinets and bassoons were incredibly pianissimo in the opening Pilgrim’s Hymn theme. The trombones were not much louder when they repeated the tune. With the lure of the Venusberg the volume increased, but Elder made sure that the bacchanal remained a fairly measured affair. Only when the profane and the sacred clashed was the orchestra let off its leash. When the pilgrims returned, hailing ‘salvation’s grace’, the murmuring violins were doing just that, murmuring, while the wind instruments were giving it some brass. This was the Hallé at its rich, harmonic best, replacing Wagnerian pomp with English understatement, but it was perhaps not the most theatrical of interpretations.

Debussy had a love-hate relationship with Wagner’s music. He was so aware that his first version of Pelléas et Melisande sounded too Wagnerian that he destroyed it and started anew. La damoiselle elué (1887-8) was luckily not ripped up by Debussy, despite the fact that there are hints of the Siegfried idyll and the spirit of Parsifal clearly inhabits this masterful cantata. I own three different recordings of the work, but had never heard it in concert and clearly didn’t really appreciate its celestial beauty. Inspired by a poem by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti Debussy composed ”a little oratorio, in a mystic, slightly pagan vein”, as he put it.

La Blessed Damozelle by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painting based on the poem that inspired Debussy
La Blessed Damozelle by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painting based on the poem that inspired Debussy

The work is scored for two sopranos, female chorus and orchestra (the piano version is also perfectly charming). Amazingly this accomplished work was Debussy’s first orchestral work to be performed (in 1893). The symbolist poetry seems to evoke the Victorian idea of medieval imagery. The blessed and chaste damozel, ‘leaning out from the gold bar of Heaven’, laments the brief time she spent with her lover. The narrator sets the scene, but musically has little to offer. It is the female chorus that has all the best lines and music. The combined forces of the Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir executed this to perfection. The subtly shifting harmonies would have confused some contemporary listeners, but shocking or incomprehensible it wasn’t (like the opera Pelléas). Harp, oboe, English horn, flute and the strings provide the most memorable colours and to me, this sounds like Art Nouveau set to music. The title role was sung by Sophie Bevan who took over from the indisposed Sabine Devieilhe at very short notice. After an initial, slight hesitation she was marvellous and the Hallé could hardly have been more supportive.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale takes its inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Nightingale. Stravinsky set out in 1908 to compose an opera but he didn’t get very far because he received a commission from Diaghilev in Paris to write The Firebird. This made the critics take notice of the then-unknown composer. Two more ballets, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring followed resulting in fame and fortune. In 1913 Stravinsky took up the opera project again and Le Rossignol(The Nightingale) was premiered just before WWI with the singers in the pit and Ballets Russes’ dancers miming and dancing the roles! After the war, Stravinsky created a symphonic poem with music from the opera. I am not sure how much of this music I would have appreciated if I hadn’t read a synopsis of the story provided in the programme. It helps to know what characters the instruments represent, but the music is a bit too descriptive for my liking and gets tedious. The musical ‘Chinese’ references sound comical because they are pure cliché. But there are ample opportunities for various soloists in the orchestra and they execute their solos well.

After this not wholly satisfying symphonic poem, we were treated to two short Russian folksongs sung by the Hallé Choir. The reason being that these songs are quoted in The Firebird. This was followed by the third version of the suite (1945) which has some added extras but also boasts a tighter orchestration and a stripped-down orchestra. Today the Firebird doesn’t sound as exotic (the eight-note diminished scale) as it originally did, but the magic of this music is that it hasn’t dated in any way. Surely this music appeals to anyone (?)almost everywhere,  and particularly when it is performed so well. The soothing horn solo that signals the end of the berceuse and the start of the vibrant finale summed up perfectly, in 40 seconds or so, why the Hallé at the moment is such a wonderful orchestra that doesn’t seem to be able to set a (dance) foot wrong. I can’t recall that I have heard The Firebird performed better anywhere and this is a Prom I will revisit in the BBC Prom archive.