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S & H Concert Review

Brahms, Symphonies Nos 3 and 4, London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, Barbican, 16th June 2004 (AN)



What can one expect from a mighty collaboration of world-class orchestra, first-rate conductor and genius musical scores? At worst, a lacklustre reproduction to lull the listener into indifferent slumber. At best, however, an experience that moves the soul.

Haitink’s baton did not disappoint, and yet it shied from maintaining throughout the intoxicating heights of the sublime: the quality and integrity of the parts did not always join in heavenly matrimony.

The technical rigour of the LSO was undeniable – two profoundly emotional scores were tempered by a classical precision that did great justice to the basis of Brahms’s musical conceptions. Composed within two years of one another by a middle-aged man of 50years, these brilliant examples of the symphonic form were not created by an unburdened conscience. Brahms would always see himself cast in the shadows of his great German predecessor, Beethoven, and this disquiet was further complicated by a frustratingly unrequited love for fellow composer Robert Schumann’s widow, Clara. Hence a struggle between the pressures of perpetuating his classical musical heritage and reconciling spurned passions.

At times one wondered whether the LSO’s even-handedness did not short-change the emotional side of the scale, as in for example the heart-rending Poco allegretto (from Symphony No.3). The academicism administered here was enlightening in as far as catching the nuances of the jaunty rhythms but swallowed in its stride the integral pathos and warmth. Similarly, the final movement Allegro of the same symphony – with its shimmering ‘silver lining’ textures – did not capitalise on the magic in its haste to adhere to the strictures of the beat.

But these details cast an unfair negativity – the overall performance was excellent. Haitink’s modest yet effective motions drew out a rich field of dynamics and even the calmest of passages buzzed with anticipation and latent energy. The Andante of the 3rd Symphony encapsulated the flexibility of the LSO: a steady, simple woodwind tune was warmed-up gradually by increasingly sustained orchestral articulations. To have spoken with quieter lips is unthinkable. But no sooner the calm, then a surge of lushness and power, only to hush back down to an almost imperceptible delicacy.

The success of the concert owed much to charismatic lead violinist, Gordan Nikolitch, who navigated a vibrant and impassioned string section. Always mindful of Haitink’s gestures, Nikolitch’s energetic realisations were emulated by his co-musicians and disseminated a spirit and vivacity that created nail-biting excitement – not without casualties, however, such as when his enthusiastic desk partner snapped a string during the 4th Symphony’s Allegro giocoso!

A final testament to the potency of this performance rests with a particular audience-member whose substantially-proportioned, reflective scalp I had the pleasure of sitting directly behind. Obviously fancying himself as a connoisseur and delighting in prolonged stares at anyone who dared stir or breath too loudly, it was a welcome hypocrisy that the zest from the stage enticed him to indulge in a few animated indiscretions of his own!

Aline Nassif


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