Haitink and CSO open Beethoven Festival in spirited, dynamic style

Thu Jun 03, 2010 at 2:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Bernard Haitink led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 Wednesday night at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s music is so familiar and has been such a part of the concert hall and popular culture for so long that we have a tendency to take it for granted. Yes, we know all the extraordinary works and love them, listen and applaud, yet without always appreciating the tectonic upheaval and genuine revolutionary spirit that the composer’s music wrought upon the world.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season-closing Beethoven Festival, which opened at Symphony Center Wednesday night, offers a choice opportunity to experience the composer’s complete symphonic oeuvre, played by one of the world’s finest orchestras and led by one of its leading Beethoven conductors, Bernard Haitink.

A high stool was waiting on stage for the CSO’s outgoing principal conductor, who has been beset by health issues in recent years, yet Haitink elected not to use it, and the stool was removed shortly before curtain time. Indeed, standing for the entire concert, the venerable 81-year-old Dutch maestro conducted the orchestra with great vigor and physical animation.

Haitink has recorded the Beethoven symphonies three times, most recently in a live set with the London Symphony Orchestra, and, like all great artists, his approach has evolved.

The opening Fidelio Overture set the tone for the evening: incisive, strongly projected playing with a bracing youthful exuberance from the octogenarian conductor and his responsive players, notably the fine assist by Daniel Gingrich’s polished horn solos.

The Eighth Symphony is one of Beethoven’s happiest works, possessing more wit, vivacity and rhythmic and harmonic curveballs than any of his other symphonic essays.

There is a non-showy integrity and a sense of interpretive “rightness” in Haitink’s best work and so too here. Haitink directed a fleet, spirited Eighth, faster and lighter than in the past, yet with the same unerring polish, attentive dynamics and seamless transitions.

If one had a caveat, it’s that the music could have smiled a bit more, with Haitink’s straight-faced approach missing out on some of the humor—in the Allegretto, Beethoven’s musical jibe at his friend Johann Maelzel who invented the metronome went largely for naught. Still, the exuberance and turn-on-a-dime playing of a clearly energized CSO more than made up the balance. (The idiot who shouts things at the end of CSO performances is back, yelling, “Joyful!” at the coda.)

Similarly in the not unfamiliar Symphony No. 5, Haitink avoided undue bombast, in a work that lesser hands tends to whip up for mere speed and volume. This refined, well-tempered account managed to make all the high points register–glorious oboe work by Eugene Izotov–with ample drama and excitement without ever going over the top, a model of taste as well as stellar music-making.

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

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Haitink and CSO open Beethoven Festival in spirited, dynamic style”

  1. Posted Jun 06, 2010 at 9:46 am by Chuck Bartling

    I, too, enjoyed this Wednesday evening kickoff to the CSO’s Beethoven Festival, but I am amazed that none of the critics heard what I think I heard.

    In the middle of the Fifth, an errant blast came forth from the French horn section unlike anything I have heard since my French horn-playing days in the DeLand (Fla.) High School Band. The French horn is not an easy instrument to play, and novice players often crack their notes, something rarely heard in the professional symphonic orchestras.

    But there it was…a blaaaat that was reminiscent of those high school days. Not only did it startle me, but also the people sitting around me in the Terrace section, where we were just a few feet from the horn section. My seatmate commented that “someone will probably be fired for this.”

    But the reviews revealed nothing, and now I’m wondering if my mind was playing tricks on me, perhaps because I was disappointed at the absence of the legendary Dale Clevenger from the horn section that night.

    Did anyone else hear what we heard?

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