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Bernard Haitink's Beethoven Symphony Cycle with the Chicago Symphony, June 2010

Music RambleBernard Haitink's Beethoven Symphony Cycle with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, June, 2010

Bernard Haitink asks various musicians to take their bows after the final performance of the 2010 Beethoven Festival, which was also Haitink's final performance as the CSO's Principal Conductor (2006-2010), June 20, 2010. The photo is from the perspective of the 'cello section, and was taken by Chicago Symphony 'cellist Gary Stucka, and is reproduced here with his permission. Thanks again Gary, for the pic and especially for the music.

Program 1 of 5:

Beethoven's Fidelio overture, 8th and 5th Symphonies

Haitink, Chicago Symphony

June 3, 2010

The curtain has raised on Haitink's Beethoven cycle that wraps up his semi-boss days with the CSO. First off I was pleased to see a big band out there! How radical -- Beethoven NOT performed by a chamber orchestra. In fact, the only concession I heard from Haitink to the HIPsters was in tempo choice -- fast! Almost throughout both the 8th and 5th Symphonies, he zipped along, but the orchestra always had a nice heft to it, so it worked, for me anyway. The principals were out in force, though not Clevenger.

Neither symphony bowled me over. Haitink's all about balance, especially with orchestral balance, and I missed the horns BLAZING into the finale and other such moments that invite and repay some exaggeration. But even at the hot tempos, the sound remained warm. Of the major Beethoven symphonies, I've always found Haitink least suited to the 5th, so I'm hopeful for the remainder.

Dave Royko

Program 2 of 5:

Beethoven: Symphonies 2 and 3 (Eroica)

Bernard Haitink/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

June 8th, 2010

Last night’s Eroica was pretty close to what I expected after Haitink’s 5th last week – and it was terrific. The orchestra -- at full strength again -- sounded magnificent, the principals shining, especially Dufour, reminding me just how often Beethoven features the flute. The tempos weren’t quite as brisk overall as they were for the 8th and 5th, though the one movement I did find simply too fast was the finale of the Eroica. Even when it started fast, I’d hoped Haitink might slow things down for the big, gloriously climactic reprise near the end, but he didn’t, and as it stood, the movement lacked a bit of cumulative power. The slow movement seemed to be very fast as it opened -- more a funeral jog than march – but within a few minutes it seemed to flow naturally, and even though the tempo stayed pretty steady, it didn’t seem too fast at all, and I credit Haitink for maintaining gravitas at that speed.

Haitink seems to be somebody going the opposite direction from the more typical perception that conductors slow things down as they age. It’s been years since I listened to my old LPs of his Concertgebouw Beethoven cycle but he seems to be a conductor, at least of Beethoven, who is getting faster as the years go by.

And as an aside – I must’ve missed the memo in my formative days that the Eroica’s 4th movement is a let-down. I don’t recall that assessment over the years, but lately, it seems to be standard practice to denigrate it as not up to what came before. Well, in the right hands, it has always struck me as a glorious finale, but last night, only so so.

One more thing – I’m fine with between-movement applause, and sometimes it seems natural. But after the opening movement of Beethoven’s 2nd?!? It was pleasantly bracing, though, to go from the 2nd symphony, with its last movement that always struck me as a bit hackneyed for Beethoven, to the greatest game-changer in symphonic music history.

Dave Royko


Addendum: The following is a letter Chicago Symphony Orchestra violist Max Raimi sent to the Chicago Tribune in response to Alan Artner's review of the June 6th Eroica (I heard it June 8th). The Tribune didn’t run it, but Max has given me the OK to put it here, having forwarded it after reading my simpatico comment about the Eroica’s last movement. Thank you Max.


To: Chicago Tribune

June 7, 2010

In his rather tepid review of the Chicago Symphony’s performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony under Bernard Haitink, Alan Artner opined that the last movement is “after more than 200 years still a letdown”. I have performed this music in perhaps 100 concerts and have never felt let down by it. The movement is a miracle. Beethoven sets himself an astonishing challenge, taking perhaps the most simple and angular melody he ever wrote and magically transforming it in a series of variations. The underlying theme is always clear, but it comes to express laughter, anger, and dread in turn. Just before the end there is a glorious slow passage in which this little melody somehow becomes a heartfelt, gorgeous hymn. If Mr. Artner is so insensitive to this feat of musical alchemy, perhaps the Tribune can find a better use of his time than lecturing a conductor so justly revered as Maestro Haitink on his perceived failures in interpreting Beethoven. Mr. Artner would be at least as well qualified to give Lance Armstrong some pointers on cardiovascular conditioning perhaps, or teaching Tiger Woods how to pick up girls.

Max Raimi

Program 3 of 5:

Beethoven: Leonore overture 2, Symphonies 4 & 6 (Pastoral)

Bernard Haitink/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

June 10th, 2010

Thursday night’s entry into the Haitink Beethoven cycle featured two versions of the Chicago Symphony. For the Leonore overture 2 and the 4th symphony, first-stringers (and first-blowers?) Chen (concertmaster), Dufour (flute) and Izotov (oboe) were absent, but were back on stage for the second half of the program, the Pastoral symphony, when Karpinos (timpani) departed and a timpanist I hadn’t seen before came aboard. So far, with three of the five programs on the shelf, principal hornist Clevenger has not appeared. Not to beat a dead valve (Clevenger’s apparent technical woes have been big topics of conversation this season), but what a pleasure to hear the horns and not be on the edge of one’s seat to see if any given passage would bring pleasure or clammy pain, and last night, pleasure prevailed.

The Haitink of old, tempo-wise, made a first appearance of the series with the overture, which moved massively through its 15 minutes to a rousing finale, the off-stage trumpeting inducing neck-craning from the many neophytes in the house for the Beethoven party (“Where is that coming from?”).

The 4th was what we now know to expect from Haitink at 81 – speeds ranging from quick to quicker, but carrying a sound both warm and richly-colored. The Haydnesque slow introduction was a highlight.

The 6th simply glowed. Haitink’s conducting had the orchestra’s sound breathing in long, almost-sighing phrases, and the flute/oboe/clarinet bird calls at the end of the Scene by the Brook would have made Messiaen melt. I’m guessing the clarinetist was another special guest – it wasn’t Yeh or one of the regulars as far as I could tell.

Once again, Haitink isn’t a man-of-the-moment. Everything flowed as a whole and nothing was exaggerated, which meant the Storm wouldn’t have sent anyone to the basement in fear of tornados, but Haitink’s way shone brightly as the 5th movement’s sun broke through the clouds – a glowingly gorgeous culmination.

Dave Royko


Addendum -- from the rmcr usenet group:

On Jun 11, GMS wrote:

Am glad that you're enjoying these concerts, Dave; real 'events' in CSO history! The clarinetist was Anthony Messina (sp?) (from France) and the unfamiliar tympanist was a local, Edward Harrison . . . Take care, Gary Stucka [Chicago Symphony cellist]


On Jun 11, jrsnfld wrote:

Thanks for that info, Gary. Patrick Messina (of the ONF) is one of my very favorite principal clarinetists these days--he has a delicious palette of tonal color and imaginative phrasing. If that's who you're talking about, I am doubly eager to hear that performance if it's broadcast. --Jeff


On Jun 11, GMS wrote:

Thanks for the correction, Jeff. That's the guy! Gary Stucka

Program 4 of 5:

Beethoven: Symphonies 1 and 7, Leonore overture 3

Bernard Haitink/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

June 16th, 2010

Not only was last night's program--the first and seventh symphonies sandwiching the 3rd Leonore overture--the best of Haitink's Beethoven cycle so far, but one of the best concerts of the CSO's season. The first movement of the 1st symphony was the Haitink of old, tempo-wise, with the rest of the work following suit, even with a quick 2nd movement that benefited once again from Haitink's long, breathing phrases. The overture was a dramatic close to the first half.

The seventh was absolutely stunning, goosebump-time from the opening chord to the last blazing notes. The orchestra played as well as I have ever heard, the principals locked into each other, especially Dufour and Izotof in the first movement. The second movement Allegretto was played as such, but while the tempo sounded fast at the start, the expansive string phrasing and Haitink's relaxing of the speed as the movement progressed resulted in a weighty, deeply expressive culmination. The Scherzo bubbled, but the Finale! In a movement that has no speed limit, Haitink floored the pedal, and the orchestra was as amazing for its precision as it was for the beauty of sound they produced at a truly dizzying pace. This Seventh was one for the ages.

Dave Royko

Program 5 of 5:

Beethoven: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Symphony 9

Jessica Rivera, Kelley O'Connor, Clifton Forbis, Eric Owens

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Bernard Haitink

Sunday, June 20, 2010, 3:00pm

Four years ago, almost to the day, Daniel Barenboim bid farewell to the Chicago Symphony with the Beethoven 9th, and whether a musician greeted his departure with jubilance or despair, the looming uncertainties must’ve had everyone a bit nervous. A couple of ninths later (counting Herbert Blomstedt’s dreary run-through a few years ago) and the orchestra might have been breathing a collective sigh of relief for bullets dodged and disasters averted. In their search for the next Music Director, they took their time and Ricardo Muti takes over the orchestra next year. Thanks in part to their now-former Principal Conductor Bernard Haitink, the band’s in great shape.

From the sumptuous sounds of the chorus in the opening of Beethoven’s brief “Calm Sea” cantata, all was well. Being as unfamiliar as mature Beethoven gets in Orchestra Hall--this is the first time the orchestra played it--for a change, the closing note didn’t bring a rush of “I’m first!” applause, and it was almost cute to see Haitink give a little “thanks!” wave to the players at the work’s conclusion in the brief silence before the clapping.

The Ninth, for those who heard the preceding programs in this Beethoven cycle, offered absolutely no surprises, which was just fine. The orchestra and chorus were virtually perfect (a single horn bobble in the adagio was the only flaw I heard), and Haitink’s ability to make tempos--such as the 3rd movement’s--that might sound too fast in other hands glow and flow and feel relaxed, and right.

The concluding standing ovation was interrupted by a presentation--concertmaster Chen being the one to drape it around Haitink’s neck--of a commemorative medallion traditionally bestowed on retiring musicians, and the designee gave a speech that was both gently humorous and seemingly deeply felt. Perhaps surprisingly, Haitink described the CSO as the best he’s ever lead. He then joked that he can say that because there was no other orchestra there, but after the laughter, Haitink assured the crowd--and the orchestra--that he meant it. Considering Haitink’s involvement with the Concertgebouw, London (Symphony and Philharmonic), Dresden, Boston, Berlin and Vienna orchestras, that was something to hear. And after that, finally (from what I’ve read, it didn’t happen after the two earlier performances of the Ninth Friday and Saturday) Haitink got his tusch. Even if one can’t read too much into such things, last night’s fanfare seemed much fuller, with more players joining in, than what I heard 4 years ago for the ambivalent Barenboim. The contrasting sounds fit with the fact that DB hasn’t been back since, while Haitink’s already on the schedule to return next year.

Dave Royko

Chicago's Orchestra Hall, Michigan and Jackson,

as seen from the park across the street,

Sunday, June 20, 2010, 2:40pm

(just before the concert)

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