Bernard Haitink announced earlier this year that, at 90 years old, he would take a sabbatical after the end of the Summer. It is widely understood he will never return. This made for an emotional final concert at the Salzburg Festival this morning, with Haitink at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic (these forces will repeat this same program at the London Proms and Luzern Festival after this, so it’s not quite his final performance yet – two more).
The concert opened with Beethoven‘s Piano Concerto #4 with soloist Emanuel Ax. Conductor, orchestra, and pianist kept everything light and lyrical. There is much going on in this concerto, but these forces made it seem almost easy (“almost” in that we could actually hear how much was going on given the clear playing, so we knew that despite the sound it could not have been easy). Ax gave an encore, a lively if not flamboyant work (once again, as someone who does not generally care for and almost never listens to solo piano music, I was left to make an educated guess; I might guess Chopin, but don’t really know).
After the intermission came the real emotions for Bruckner‘s Seventh Symphony. This work had its premiere from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, but as evidenced on Wednesday, that orchestra (which has preserved its distinct quality and sound) may just not be the right orchestra for Bruckner. The Vienna Philharmonic certainly is the right orchestra. This morning they sounded bright and played with just the right emotional balance. They carried the lyrics over from Beethoven, but passed them through almost eighty years of musical development to reach not light and lyrical but actually somber and lyrical, a difficult balance to pull off (easy for this orchestra).
Haitink, conducting with his score closed on the music stand, had well-measured beats. He periodically propped himself up against the barstool-like seat made available for him on the podium. At the end, clearly exhausted, he needed to be helped to walk on and off the stage for the standing ovation and multiple curtain calls (including an extra one after the orchestra had left the stage). I remember first seeing him conduct live (although I don’t remember what) when I lived in London in 1991-92 (and had my favorite seat in the pre-renovation Royal Festival Hall directly behind the brass able to read their music while facing the conductors – post-renovation these seats are higher and further removed, but back then it was a great way to learn music with some of the cheapest tickets for anything in that overpriced city). Of course I knew of his work previously.