Last Sunday, I heard the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under the direction of Bernard Haitink. It was easily the finest performance I have ever heard of this work.
Granted, this is the kind of piece that guarantees a rousing ovation at the work's conclusion, and so any conductor could be excused from thinking that all of the plaudits are for him (or her). But the Tanglewood crowd can be a discerning crowd, and they were not going to stop applauding after two or three curtain calls. And much, if not all, of the credit, must go to Haitink.
When I am asked for my favorite conductors living today, I have never mentioned Haitink's name. His reputation is beyond repute, and even the composer/conductor Gunther Schuller -- who is tough on all of the greats -- places Haitink among those at the top of the heap. This was only the second time I have seen Haitink live; the first time was over thirty years ago, conducting Holst's Planets at the BBC Proms. I thought it was a good performance, but I quickly forgot about it. When I saw him on television with the Concertgebeow Orchestra, his work seemed first rate, if sometimes lacking spontaneity.
That's all changed now. Among the great conductors today, he is totally devoid of ego. The score was in front of him, and he turned every page, though I doubt he needed it. But the tempos were all right -- even when they were a bit on the slow side (the scherzo in particular), they still seemed right. He is 84 years old, but conducts like someone much younger. The third movement was glorious. And the finale, which in the wrong hands can be an unholy mess, was the most cohesive and persuasive account I have ever heard. (Stravinsky did not like the Ninth, but he might have liked this one.) The Turkish March had just the right combination of spit and humor, and the double fugue was super-charged, every voice crystal clear. There was never a moment when Haitink did nothing less than guide the players, and reveal the music as Beethoven wrote it.
Afterwards, a player told me that Haitink stopped just once in the dress rehearsal, after a few bars of the slow movement, addressing the first violins: "Yes . . . . but can it not be more beautiful?" That's the only thing he said all morning. Many of the players agree that, were it not for his age, Haitink would be their next music director.
After the performance, I spoke briefly with Mark Volpe, Executive Director of the BSO, who said the players were very tired, running on fumes, but because of their enormous respect for Haitink, they played like it could be their last performance. After several curtain calls, Haitink came out twice more, and both times the orchestra refused to stand, rapping their stands and stomping their feet in approval -- the ultimate compliment for a conductor.