Haitink leads the BSO in luminous Debussy, youthful Beethoven

March 17, 2017 at 10:39 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Bernard Haitink conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Haydn, Debussy and Beethoven Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Bernard Haitink conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in music of Haydn, Debussy and Beethoven Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

After several weeks of presenting offbeat and contemporary works, the Boston Symphony Orchestra returned to familiar territory Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Leading a program of Haydn, Beethoven and Debussy was also a familiar face, Bernard Haitink, the BSO’s conductor emeritus.

In the Andris Nelsons era, where conductors draw attention to every last detail of a piece, Haitink’s seemingly hands-off direction is refreshing. Leading with small gestures and a big-picture approach, he allowed the music to speak for itself. At 88, he still has the power to command readings of silky lyricism from the orchestra. Thursday night’s concert was one of smooth phrasing and soft colors.

That was particularly evident in the BSO’s performance of Debussy’s Nocturnes. Music of Debussy is something of a specialty for Haitink as he has recorded the composer’s orchestral works for the Philips label.

The conductor made much out of the work’s thin, luminous textures. In “Nuages,” wind and string lines were woven into bright tapestries of sound, with a haunting English horn solo cutting through the mist. “Fêtes” swirled with energy. Haitink’s clear-eyed view of the score still managed to highlight the details. Winds flourished, brasses burst, and cellos and basses thumped gently in rhythm. In “Sirènes” the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, supplied iridescent layers of sound that evaporated into halo effects. Indeed, this was Debussy in which to revel.

The opener was a rarity, Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 in C major. Nicknamed Il distratto, the work resulted from theatre music the composer wrote for a French play by Jean-François Regnard entitled Le Distrait. Though it brims with humor, the symphony is not one of a Haydn’s better pieces.

Thursday night’s performance, though finely played, missed the mark in interpretation. Haitink led a reading of cool sophistication that left the work’s many jokes, including a quirky violin tune up in the final movement, falling flat.

Contrasts, though, were well judged, and the conductor shaded the phrases with sudden fortes and pianos. The minor-key passages of the Menuetto and Trio had a slight dramatic touch. The quick movements moved with fire and energy, and the fanfare figures of the fifth movement featured bright beams of sound from the brass.

After intermission, Haitink led a surging performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The conductor took a young man’s approach to the piece, leading with fleet tempos and driving intensity without resorting to melodrama.

After a grand slow introduction, the first movement took off in a true Vivace. Solo flute and oboe brought flourishes to the main theme, and when the full orchestra took over, the music bounced as if a dance. Brass and timpani accents in the recapitulation fell like hammer strokes.

Haitink took the famous second movement at a stately pace, the phrases churning like a motor in the cellos and basses. The brief fugal section moved with quiet intensity.

The bucolic Trio of the laughing Scherzo moved at even a quicker pace than one normally experiences it, which gave the music extra vitality. The finale blazed, matching the driving energy of Herbert Blomstedt’s reading with the BSO last March. The final chords brought the audience to its feet.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Haitink leads the BSO in luminous Debussy, youthful Beethoven”

  1. Posted Mar 17, 2017 at 11:46 am by Jim Doherty

    Great review! I was there and what Aaron described I heard. I did enjoy the jokes in the Haydn.

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