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Ionarts-at-Large: Ageing Maestros and a Youthful Knight-Errant

Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, and an errant sheep from Don Quixote

Some conductors get more interesting with age (Riccardo Chailly!), some probe new depths (Vänskä), many get increasingly more bland and boring (Mehta, Maazel), some are merely tolerated on the podium because of past achievements (Previn) or because they’d die if they didn’t any longer have conducting.

The most obvious example is Kurt Masur, who has been reduced to ineptitude, capable of ruining any evening’s worth of music. He gets away with it because of ignorant, self-congratulatory audiences, in love with big names and events, and coward editors, afraid of publishing anything harsh that might upset preconceived notions of wisdom in age and benevolent kindness toward the infirm. There’s a point to indulging Masur in this fantasy, as a sort of life-time achievement award... so why speak ugly truths. But there’s also a point in saying that it is not fair to music; the composers being mistreated. Who would let a decorated but shaky doctor operate on patients, based on past merit?

As long as there are still orchestras willing to work with conductors past minimum ability, as long as there are still audiences willing to pay money to attend such performances, there’s nothing that speaks against these living-memorial road shows. It’s disturbing, though, to think that even only a few classical newcomers attended, felt compelled to go with the mass-verdict of enthusiastic applause, but felt nothing or less inside… only to find themselves not vindicated in critical reviews that pointed out that not Beethoven, much less the listener was at fault, but the famous executioner-turned-butcher. That age is no excuse
is shown the world over by superb performance of able, even if physically frail, conductors.

Where is this going, given that a performance of Bernard Haitink and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra—perfectly unrelated to above shenanigans—is the purported subject of this concert review? It’s suggesting yet another way in which a conductor can age: A graceful one, thankfully, a genial and sunny way in which the respect and feeling of endearment of the orchestra to the conductor can achieve subtly wonderful results. Herbert Blomstedt, Pierre Boulez and very notably the terrific Skrowaczewski are such examples. So is the éminence grise Bernard Haitink. Thankfully a regular with the BRSO, he came to town on the 13th and 15th of December to conduct Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote and Brahms’ First Symphony.

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Don Quixote,
P.Tortelier / R.Kempe / BRSO

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Don Quixote,
P.Fournier / G.Szell / Cleveland O.
CBS / Sony

The quasi cello-concerto Don Quixote is not that often played because it is an utterly ungrateful work that has an unkindly high chance of tanking—or at least of not-enthralling—if it is played with less than perfection. Adding insult to injury, it’s so darn difficult that perfection is nearly impossible. A very good performance is almost not enough, especially to ears spoiled by recordings where, occasionally, near-perfection is captured. When the entries are not absolutely exact, and rhythmic changes not painstakingly defined—and they weren’t always, on the first of these two concerts—you are left with something merely impressive but silently dissatisfactory. Add to that the young (*1986) BRSO’s second solo cellist Maximilian Hornung who didn’t get into the necessary confident, natural soloist-mode until the work’s last variation. There our hero (Don Quixote, that is) is finally at home and content and the interpreting soloist was, at last, relaxed. The veteran violist, placed next to Hornung as if Don Quixote was a double concerto, had a better day than Horning, but has himself had better days. He wasn't helped by the silly pseudo-soloist seating: Don Quixote isn’t a double concerto, and that seating doesn’t make sense: the viola and cello hardly work together and the rôle of Sancho Panza is shared by several instruments, not just the primus inter pares viola. (Incidentally, the second night was reliably reported to have been such a better day for both instrumentalists.)

The subsequent Symphony was dispatched in secure, beautiful manner. The fourth movement was particularly drawn out, but it always had a pulse that kept it just alive and well. This was Brahms with brawn and baby fat where lean muscle might have been more bracing. But then that wouldn’t have been with Haitink on the podium, and instead someone like Paavo Järvi or Thomas Dausgaard, or even Mariss Jansons, who are more likely to go down the snappy and zesty route.