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Chicago Classical Review »» Bernard Haitink, 1929-2021


By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Haitink conducted Bruckner’s Symphony No.6 in his last concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2018. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Bernard Haitink died at his London home on Thursday at the age of 92. The news came as no surprise to most due to his age and fragile health in recent years.

Haitink is best known locally, of course, for his four-year tenure as principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2010, a transitional interregnum that ensured artistic stability between the Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti eras. .

In a released statement, Muti said, “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus, myself and the entire CSOA family mourn the passing of Maestro Bernard Haitink, one of the world’s greatest conductors, artists and musicians. , who has given so much to history. musical interpretation. His loss leaves a huge void in the world of music, and his extraordinary collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will long remain in the history of this great institution.

The sober Dutchman has had a remarkable international career. Upon the sudden death of Eduard van Beinum while rehearsing Brahms’ Symphony No.1, Haitink was appointed Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (then just the Concertgbouw Orchestra). Two years later, in 1961, he became principal chef at the age of 32.

During his 27-year career at the helm of the Concertgebouw, Haitink’s prolific recording in Amsterdam spread fame and reputation not only for the orchestra – recognized as one of the top three symphony ensembles in the world – but of its young and ambitious conductor. When he left the Concertgebouw in 1988, Haitink embarked on an already active international career on the catwalks and continued to lead some of the world’s most famous and prominent musical organizations for the rest of his life.

Among his posts were musical director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Glyndebourne Festival; principal guest conductor and later conductor emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; principal conductor of the London Philharmonic; Laureate conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra; and honorary member of the European Chamber Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It is with the last orchestra that he conducts what will be his last concert in September 2019.

It was a remarkable coup from the CSO management that Haitink was persuaded to become the CSO’s principal conductor in 2006 at a time when musicians’ morale needed a boost with subscriptions from patrons. down following the artistically uneven 12-year tenure of Daniel Barenboim.

Haitink first led the CSO in 1967, before returning in 1997 and early 2006. That fall he took up his post as Senior CSO Leader and in the following seasons restored a certain corporate luster and maintained a high quality of performance as the orchestra searched for a new musical director.

For Haitink, the score was alpha and omega, and everything he did in rehearsal and performance flowed from that. Few conductors of the 20th and 21st centuries have so completely avoided fame, public worship and the glitzy traps of the music industry. He rarely smiled, even acknowledging thunderous applause, traveled unescorted, and hardly ever granted press interviews. All the attention and business was focused on the score, detailed rehearsals and musical composition.

Bernard Haitink was appointed Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1961.

Haitink’s core repertoire centered on the Austro-German canon: Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Bruckner, Mahler and Strauss which he all recorded and in most cases more than once. He rarely programmed contemporary music or much of anything from the second half of the 20th century, with the exception of Shostakovich.

Yet within those limits he brought an odd ear for meticulous poise and transparency, qualities beautifully captured in Haiti’s many recordings, but especially noticeable when experienced live. Even in the loudest fortissimos, you could hear every contrapuntal minute and every bells of the orchestra.

Pierre Boulez also achieved great clarity in the performances but Haitink did it without the icy distance and intellectual thrill of the Frenchman. No one would accuse Haitink of being an open-hearted musician, but his best performances often communicated an Old World richness and tonal warmth.

Haitink’s objectivist style and refusal to fit into music would sometimes lead to neat but stable performances, especially in, say Mahler, where the music can benefit from a bit of savagery and unchecked enthusiasm.

And yet, Haitink’s sober approach has often found a weight and expressive depth in the music that few would have dreamed of possible, such as some of Shostakovich’s minor symphonies or Liszt’s complete symphonic poems for orchestra.

His discography (for Philips, Decca and later EMI) was vast and varied, an essential part of any self-respecting collector. In addition to the full symphonies of the composers mentioned above, one particularly appreciates his remarkable recordings of Debussy with the Concertgebouw – refined, lucid and with an unconstrained expression that makes the music speak with simplicity and eloquence.

His recordings on the CSO Resound label included Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, three Mahler symphonies, (1, 2 and 6) Strauss Heldenleben, Ravel is complete Daphnis and Chloe and a Grammy-winning recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4.

The Chicago Classical Review did not exist for most of Haitink’s tenure as principal conductor (a 2008 concert by Haitink at the helm of Mahler’s Second Symphony was thought to have played a role in the decision launch the CCR).

After Riccardo Muti took the reins of the CSO in 2011, Haitink continued to return, albeit gradually less frequently. Yet those years have continued to bring many memorable nights. We think especially of a Bruckner Fourth and a Mahler Fourth and Ninth. In the latter two cases, even a soprano who missed his cue in the finale and awkward playing of the orchestra’s old main horn, could not damage the richness, insight and overall impact of the performances. .

At the end of what would be his last appearance as an CSO in October 2018, Haitink lost his balance as he stepped off the podium and had a bad fall, which looked much worse than it did. turned out to be. But what will be remembered more than the mishap of the frail conductor is the majestic and thrilling interpretation of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony which preceded it.

The surprisingly youthful insight and vitality of this performance by Bruckner coincidentally serves as an effective coda for Haiti’s partnership with the OSC. And the memory of this and so many other outstanding performances led by Haitink over the past 15 years will continue to evoke a myriad of individual tributes – from musicians and members of the public – to one of the greatest musicians of the world. last century.

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