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Ionarts-at-Large: Haitink's Unfinished Business with Bruckner

available at AmazonA.Bruckner, Symphony No.9,
P.Jaervi / Frankfurt RSO
Every time I write about the Bruckner Te Deum I mention that it’s one of those works that I have trouble appreciating due to some deficiency of my own. I give it the benefit of the doubt, assuming there is greatness where I can’t discover it (ditto the Brahms Requiem or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis), but I just can’t warm to it. In fact, I have trouble comprehending how so few others share my unease with the Te Deum, which feels like a succession of random moments of being screamed at, purposeless, all in tedious, occasionally boring C-major. It's my Bruckner blind spot.

Ever hoping for the epiphany, I had been brought (surprisingly) close to the point of appreciation by Daniel Barenboim in the second of the opening concerts of the Salzburg Festival and I hoped again—with considerable confidence—when Bernard Haitink performed it with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra last week. Sitting closer to the orchestra than I usually do in the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig, it took a while to get used to the immediate, full sound, trying to figure out what part the well-honed orchestra and what part the acoustic played in that. In a swift, clear, articulate, and loud way, the performance was “as much as you can expect from the work”, according to one colleague who appreciated the immense accuracy. But I had actually enjoyed the flip-on—flip-off terracing that Barenboim had accentuated in his performance, and even the much adored Haitink couldn’t transcend the usual boredom for this biased pair of ears. Of the soloists, soprano Krassimira Stoyanova and bass Günther Groissböck acquitted themselves nicely, if without particular distinction… and the only distinction of tenor Christoph Strehl was his unfortunate weakness in the high notes, which the Te Deum cruelly exposes. (Inspired by a Winnie the Pooh Band-Aid, I pursued other creative endeavors, as you can observe below.)

I need no extra motivation to care about Bruckner’s Ninth—especially not when Haitink conducts. Every opportunity to hear the man lead an orchestra means excitement—not in the wild, or ‘loud’ sense, but because Haitink is such a consummate master of his art—and one who has only become more interesting. Early recordings exude mastery, moderation, understatement, occasionally boredom. Newer recordings (on CSO or RCO Live—for example Bruckner Seventh, Mahler Fourth) are all that, minus the boredom bit… adding a special quality best avoided describing by referring to it as “je ne sais quoi”. His Bruckner Fifth with the BRSO in February had those (subdued) qualities; only his Fifth in Salzburg was an odd disappointment. All in all, Haitink offers a rare kind of greatness, not just in reputation but doing.

It’s a subtle greatness, subtle enough to be hindered by an electronic high frequency buzz that accompanied softer passages in the Gasteig—not unlike an overacting hearing-aid might produce, but louder. Trying hard not to be distracted (difficult) I could still admire the cogency and determination and the level of technical excellence that—gingerly played Wagner tubas included—the BRSO so often spoils one with. The second of the three movements was a much cherished highlight; Haitink enforcing his will by the most economic means and casual-yet-determined poise.

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