It was in the 1790s, when Haydn came to England at the invitation of London-based impresario Johann Peter Salomon, that the twelve 'London' symphonies were composed. They were to be Haydn's last essays in the genre, examples in which, he said, he had to 'change many things for the English public'. Yet, whatever Haydn's vernacular adaptations to the symphony were, this was an account that had an indelible Viennese stamp, in both sound and approach.
Haitink's vision of this final London' Symphony was a clean one, encouraging sparing use of vibrato and lithe sounds from the orchestra – apart from the first violins. Indeed, it was somewhat baffling that this specific thread within the musical fabric shimmered when all around it was much more still, particularly when their line was a contrapuntal detail instead of principal melodic interest. Some of their articulation too felt mannered, trying to emulate the more visceral sounds obtained by 'period' ensembles, but resulting in phrases that sounded clipped rather than 'rhetorical'.
The second movement was brisk to the point of sounding, at times, a little perfunctory; some of the rich harmonic sequences were robbed of their nobility and grandeur, and there was a resultant lack of poise from moments that tumbled freely, rather than being cherished tenderly. One notable exception was principal flute Walter Auer's crystalline cadenzas that wafted upwards with elegant perfume.
If charm was lacking in the Andante, however, it was recaptured in the third movement Minuet, which was granted a majestic irregularity to its beat – a reminder of how characterful this dance can be. Similarly, the finale contrasted vitality with some very special instances of transparent stillness, again conjured principally by the woodwind's colours.
But if the Haydn occasionally revealed a historical or stylistic distance between composer and orchestra, Strauss' Alpine Symphony showed the VPO as part of a living tradition. Indeed, it was Strauss who said that 'all praise of the Vienna Philharmonic reveals itself as understatement', and Haitink exploited this historical relationship to the full.
Completed in 1915, Strauss's final tone poem depicts a day's climbing in the Bavarian Alps. It moves, over the course of some 22 continuous tableaux, from the sunrise and precarious moments of the ascent, through a monumental climax at the apex, to night at the end of the climb-down, catching various natural scenes on the way, such as a waterfall, flowery meadows, glaciers, forests, and brooks. And, of course, there's the storm, with all the theatricality of a dressed-up kitchen inventory at the back of the orchestra, from over-sized sheets of foil to gigantic tumble-drier drums.
Yet for all its vivid illustrations, the Alpine Symphony is hard to grab onto: its length and diverse composition mean that finding coherence can be a challenge. Haitink suggested letting the drama speak, rather than contriving profundity, and the VPO answered with virtuosity and sheer beauty in equal measure, resulting in a sense of awe-inspiring natural majesty. Their shifts of colour and space exposed Strauss' brilliant musical imagery along with their own musical imagination at its best, and revealed a relationship with their maestro that shows he is as loved by them as by the effusive audience.
favourite repertoire with an ensemble closely
associated with the history and traditions
of orchestral music. The last of Haydn’s
symphonies, written while he was living
in London, proved an instant critical and
commercial success. Not so the Strauss,
part-elegy for Mahler, part-celebration of the
composer himself. Mingling childhood memories
of a schoolboy mountaineering expedition with
a deeper vision of man’s place on earth, the
work was received rather sniffily in Britain until
as Bernard Haitink
arrived to change
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