Haitink’s polished style misses some of Beethoven’s idiosyncrasy

Fri Jun 11, 2010 at 3:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Haitink conducted the CSO in Beethoven’s Fourth and Sixth symphonies Thursday night.

By now, Bernard Haitink’s style in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival is a known quantity: quickish tempos, dexterously balanced and blended sonorities, and a precision and polished gleam allied to a rock-ribbed interpretive integrity.

Yet for all the glorious playing—and there was plenty of it again in all sections Thursday night—as this series has unfolded, one misses a sense of danger, swagger and idiosyncrasy, even in the two lighter works presented in the third program at Orchestra Hall.

“A slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants” was Robert Schumann’s famous encapsulation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, a more genial and light-hearted work than the flanking Eroica and Fifth. Haitink’s spaciously moulded introduction and spirited Allegro were beyond reproach but the fleet tempo for the Adagio slighted the songful quality and ironed out the tempo contrasts.

The scherzo and final movement went with apt dynamism and verve but what I miss most in Haitink’s Beethoven is a sense of humor. Time and again, Beethoven’s musical one-liners, rhythmic flips and harmonic curveballs fell flat for all the firmly projected vitality of the playing under Haitink’s straight-faced direction. A political critic memorably characterized President George H. Bush’s foreign policy as one of “extreme moderation” and the same can be said for Haitink’s Beethoven.

The Sixth was similarly mixed. Haitink led a beautifully played reading—with Mathieu Dufour, Eugene Izotov and guest clarinetist Patrick Messina again distinguishing themselves—but one that held the music at a distance. In this Pastoral we experienced nature from inside a luxury sedan, briskly motoring through the countryside without any dawdling to admire the scenery, windows rolled-up and the AC quietly humming. Again much glorious playing from the CSO with the strings radiant in the beneficent spiritual glow of the concluding movement, but for such deeply felt music, this performance felt cool and rather anonymous.

In many ways, the opening Leonore Overture No. 2 received the most compelling performance of the evening. Here, in one of the less often heard of Beethoven’s four Fidelio curtain-raisers, Haitink seemed determined to make a case for this music and the imposing, weighty and concentrated reading convinced one of the overture’s worth. With a few more Beethoven rarities, this festival might have recreated some of the sense of discovery and excitement that Sir Mark Elder brought to last year’s Dvorak Festival, and which has been largely lacking in this series.

Note: Among the many personnel shifts and guest musicians sitting in with the CSO during this festival, principal horn Dale Clevenger has been absent throughout the first three programs. A CSO spokeswoman attributed Clevenger’s absence to “regular rotation.”

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday. www.cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment