Isabelle Faust, Bernard Haitink / COE
KKL Lucerne, 2016-09-04
I was able to attend another concert (the second one of three this year) in the context of the Lucerne Festival (Summer Festival 2016), held in the white hall of the KKL Lucerne. This was a concert with a program featuring works of one single composer, Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904). The Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE) played under the direction of Bernard Haitink.
Bernard Haitink (#1929), one of the great European conductors of his generation, is well-known for hist interpretations of Bruckner’s and Mahler’s symphonies. In this Summer Festival, he has conducted Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No.8. He is currently also performing a cycle of works by Antonín Dvořák.
In this concert, he conducted the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE). This is an ensemble that grew out of the European Union Youth Orchestra, back in 1981. The core of the orchestra now consists of around 60 musicians, mostly high-profile people, such as chamber musicians and lead members of various European orchestras. The orchestra has worked with prominent conductors. Initially, Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014) was an important mentor for the orchestra. Later, conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016), Vladimir Jurowski (*1972), Sir Antonio Pappano (*1959), Sir András Schiff (*1953), and Yannik Nézet-Séguin (*1975) have worked with the orchestra.
Bernard Haitink—now aged 87—is frequently working with this ensemble. That conductor is a phenomenon. He may be frail in his appearance, slowly and carefully makes his way onto the conductor’s podium. However, once he has taken the baton, it suddenly becomes clear that he is mentally present as much as ever. He is using his right hand with the baton, precisely giving the beat, while his left hand is shaping, forming the sound, the dynamics of the orchestra. Key parts of his work with the orchestra of course happen during the rehearsals, prior to the concert. Still, conducting for two hours are a physical challenge, even for much younger conductors!
History of the Composition
The genre of Symphonic Poem was invented by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). Dvořák wrote five Symphonic Poems (opp. 107 – 111), four of which (opp.107 – 110) are based on ballads by Karel Jaromír Erben (1811 – 1870), from a collection named “Kytice” (bouquet). The Symphonic Poems were composed in the years 1896 and 1897: they are late works in Dvořák’s oeuvre.
The four ballads that Dvořák used are sombre, rather cruel, if not gory fairy tales / stories, and “Holoubek” (The Wild Dove, composed 1896) is no exception to this. It is about a woman who has poisoned her husband in order to marry her lover. A wild dove on her late husband’s grave reminds the woman of her crime and causes her to commit suicide.
Dvořák’s composition begins like a distant announcement: a country song / melody, leisurely, harmless, peaceful. There are some soft beats from the timpani, but the music initially remains thoughtful, pensive: the quiet atmosphere of a graveyard? The atmosphere turns melancholic, longing; diabolic, intermittent calls announce the coming disaster. The music build up a threatening scenery, as if dark clouds announced an upcoming thunderstorm—or are they talking about the woman’s deeds? But soon, the music turns towards the woman’s wedding with the lover: dancing, a lovely, joyful scenery, seemingly peaceful, relaxed and undisturbed. The music turns exuberant, calms down again after a climax.
But the past deeds catch up with the bride: after a harsh cymbal clash, one can hear the dove’s cooing in the woodwinds. Bassoon and horns indicate a threatening scenery, and the drama of the ballad takes its inevitable course. I’m not sure whether the fading, silent ending is to be seen as returning calm in the graveyard, or whether it rather signifies reconciliation and forgiveness.
Bernard Haitink manages to maintain the tension throughout the 20 minutes of this peace, from the first up to the last bar. He (and the music, of course) remains attentive, even though he does not accelerate, and without adding excess drama to the piece. Even in the calm, quiet segments, the music kept my attention—there never was any danger of my thoughts wandering off: an excellent performance!
Dvořák composed his Violin Concerto in A minor, op.53, in 1879/1880, for the great violinist Joseph Joachim (1831 – 1907). Joachim had become an admirer of Dvořák, and asked the composer for a concerto. The composer followed that request, even asked Joachim for advice. Sadly, the violinist was not satisfied with the result. Dvořák made some adjustments, but refused to split the first two movements. Joachim probably also wanted to have an opportunity for a cadenza, which the composer also refused. In the end, Joachim never performed the concerto in public. The composition was premiered in 1883, by the violinist František Ondříček (1857 – 1922). The concerto features three movements; movement 2 follows the first one attacca (without interruption):
- Allegro ma non troppo —
- Adagio ma non troppo
- Finale: Allegro giocoso ma non troppo
Isabelle Faust (*1972), the soloist in this concerto, doesn’t require an introduction. I have written numerous posts about her in several CD reviews, as well as about her playing in a concert in the Tonhalle Zurich (Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D, op.61). To me, she is among the world’s very top violinists—in some ways, even second to none. She is playing her “usual” violin, “La belle au bois dormant” (“Dornröschen“) by Antonius Stradivarius, from 1704. That is a precious instrument with a silky, very well-balanced tone over the entire range.
I. Allegro ma non troppo
The soloist started playing the concerto with a mellow, warm tone, initially clearly emphasizing legato. When her part was pausing, she prepared herself for the next solo, almost meditating with the music. But when it then was her turn, she started decisively, firmly. She quickly picked up momentum, then passed that on to the orchestra. Isabelle Faust was even guiding the orchestra, providing impulses also through gestures, sweeping, almost dancing movements. She really exploited the drive, one of the strengths in Mendelssohn’s music. Also in the many double-stop passages, her intonation was absolutely flawless, impeccable. Her dynamics and agogics were well-measured and controlled, without ever appearing intellectual.
Bernard Haitink’s accompaniment was careful and judicious. The conductor and his orchestra really served, supported the soloist. Haitink obviously has no need to try gaining extra profile as accompanist.
II. Adagio ma non troppo
In the second movement, I found the soloist to be very convincing, with her calm in the elegiac width of her seemingly infinite melody lines. These often sounded like a lark’s lovely trills. She retained her presence, from dramatic interjections down to the softest, most subtle passages. At all times, I felt that to Isabelle Faust, expression is more important than technical brilliance. With her, the latter of course is an obvious, almost requirement, the natural basis for her art.
III. Finale: Allegro giocoso ma non troppo
Bernard Haitink started the Finale with a demanding tempo; the orchestra had no problem following, with light articulation. Isabelle Faust’s solo was playful, dancing, light, and often almost without vibrato, in favor of clarity.
The middle part changes to a slightly melancholic atmosphere, with themes that are derived from Czech folklore. But the ending returns to the serene, playful initial theme. The solo part is very virtuosic and features rhythmically intricate passages. But Isabelle Faust firmly guides the orchestra through movement, up to the enthralling ending.
Dvořák started writing his Symphony No.7 in 1884. This composition was triggered by hearing the Symphony No.3 in F major, op.90, by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) in concert. At the same time, the London Philharmonic Society commissioned a new symphony on the occasion of electing Dvořák an honorary member. The symphony was completed 1885 and premiered successfully in London, that same year, with the composer conducting. This and the two subsequent symphonies (Symphony No.8 in G major, op.88, B.163, and Symphony No.9 in E minor, op.95, B.178, “From the New World”) represent the peak in Dvořák’s symphonic oeuvre. Symphony No.7 features the usual four movements:
I. Allegro maestoso
In this last part of the concert, we again could experience the sublime art of the seasoned master on the conductor’s podium. Bernard Haitink focused on clear contours, clear articulation and phrasing. He created and kept the tension throughout the movement, without ever forcing or pushing the tempo. The orchestra remained transparent also in the climax, the movement never lost its momentum.
II. Poco adagio
Here, Haitink’s interpretation convinced in its carefully crafted arches. Also this movement kept the listener’s attention from beginning to end, it never appeared celebrated or fabricated. I experienced an excellent balance between dramatic build-ups / big phrases, and playing out the wonderful melodies that switched between the violins and the wind instruments. The latter section features superb instrumentalists throughout.
III. Scherzo: Vivace – Poco meno mosso
The Scherzo features a joyful, dancing theme—it appeared almost playful. The movement builds up to dramatic, almost crude unruliness. In the Trio (Poco meno mosso), Bernard Haitink slowed down just gradually: the music retained a slight, subliminal effervescence from the Scherzo parts. The returning Scherzo interchanges between drama and subtle, soft swaying. However, Haitink never lets the music slip into sheer comfortableness.
IV. Finale: Allegro
In the last movement I experienced a rhythmically firm orchestra, with excellent coordination throughout. The interpretation always felt alert, yet never exuberant, always controlled, guided by Bernard Haitink’s infallible mind. I particularly liked the warm sound of the cello section and the brilliance of the brass instruments in the majestic broadening of the final bars.
Never in Bernard Haitink’s interpretation I found signs of age fatigue, of softening in the intensity of the music. The performance was never exaggerating, remained controlled in the rubato. It was consistent and compelling throughout. It was no surprise to see how also the orchestra applauded its conductor, whom they obviously adore and really like. The musicians went as far as waiving bows and clapping, even trampling. The reaction in the orchestra almost exceeded that of the enthusiastic audience. The venue was virtually sold out—for good reason, obviously.
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.