Bernard Haitink, perhaps the wisest conductor of them all

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Bernard Haitink, perhaps the wisest conductor of them all
Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, who died on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, leads the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in New York, Nov. 17, 2011. “Plenty of artists say that they want to get out of the way of the music, that they want to let it speak for itself,” writes the New York Times critic David Allen. “You went to a Haitink concert fully aware of what to expect, only for those expectations usually to be surpassed.” Matthew Dine/The New York Times.

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- What I can still feel today, almost in my skin, is the warmth. It was July 20, 2009, at the Royal Albert Hall in London; I sat behind the orchestra, all the better to see the conductor.

Bernard Haitink had led the London Symphony Orchestra through the first three movements of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. I can’t remember much about them, to be honest, although I’m confident that the portrayal of their carnage, ironies and fear was sure. All memory of that melted in the generosity of the embrace that followed.

If a D flat chord can be decent, can be understanding, then the one Haitink drew that evening from the orchestra’s strings near the start of Mahler’s concluding adagio, the composer’s farewell to life, was that and more.

Haitink lay something close to a benediction on that benighted music, and through it on us, as if to say that everything would be all right, that we could accept calmly what was to come. Never had I heard such resolve, such serenity in the face of death as Haitink found in that movement; it sang with empathy, and it seemed to sing the truth.

Under no conductor did music so often sound so right as it did under Haitink, who died Thursday at 92.

You went to a Haitink concert fully aware of what to expect, only for those expectations usually to be surpassed. Whether it was in Brahms or Bruckner, Beethoven or Mahler, at his best, and especially in his later years, Haitink was able to make music emerge as if it was entirely uninterpreted — without it becoming anonymous. Haitink’s conducting was personal, even as it felt impersonal.

Plenty of artists say that they want to get out of the way of the music, that they want to let it speak for itself. The claim is always illusory, for the transfiguration of notes on a page into sound in a hall demands that choices be made. But Haitink made the illusion seem real.

Others would have made that talent at conveying naturalness into something doctrinaire, would have rooted it in a claim to be extending some grand tradition, or in a declared attachment to the letter of the score. But Haitink was not obviously an heir to the literalism of Arturo Toscanini, and certainly not to the uncanny subjectivity of Wilhelm Furtwängler or the eccentricities of Willem Mengelberg, the conductor he grew up hearing at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, where he was chief conductor from 1961 to 1988.

What Haitink did have was a sound. David Alberman, the chair and principal second violin of the London Symphony, wrote that Haitink had an “unmistakable ability to change the sound of an orchestra with his mere presence,” an ability that even the musicians who adored him could hardly explain.

The sound was not flashy, nor did it seem as if it was applied from the outside. It imbued what the ensembles he led already possessed with a deeper integrity, a weight, a gravity, that was nonetheless rarely portentous or heavy. Indeed, in the French repertoire in which he excelled, that careful seriousness of purpose drew a clarity, a beguiling transparency.

Haitink offered no insistent interventions in the roiling aesthetic debates of the decades after World War II. Even when he began to move with the times, he arrived at a style that was characteristic for its lack of fuss, as in the leaner Beethoven of the last of his three cycles of the symphonies, in which the influence of the historically informed performance movement was plain, but subtly so.

“I have no message to the world,” he told The New York Times in 2002. When pressed, he would deny knowing much about what he was doing; a book of reflections was titled, “Conducting Is a Mystery.” (His master classes suggested otherwise.)

This was not the norm among conductors of a domineering, publicity-seeking age, but then again, Haitink eschewed stardom. “I’m not a conductor type,” he frankly told the Times in 1976.

Whether it was because of the deprivation of his childhood in occupied, impoverished Amsterdam, or for reasons deeper to his psychology, he was shy, quiet, humble. He came to say little in rehearsals, but he did not need to. Conducting with his eyes and brow, a lean of the head here and a hint of a smile there, he steadily refined his technique down to stabs of time beaten firmly, the left hand offering an utterly exact emphasis when necessary.

Haitink could be usefully obstinate amid administrative problems, as when he confronted financial and other difficulties at the Concertgebouw and, most dramatically, at the Royal Opera House in London in the late 1990s, near the end of a tenure that ran from 1987 to 2002. But it is hard to think of another conductor who would have been as willing, at the height of his powers in the 2000s, to take posts he knew were only temporary at ensembles as distinguished as the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as they searched for new leaders.

If there was little of the ego about Haitink, there still remained sufficient pride that he made more than 450 recordings. Some of them are unnecessarily duplicative, some oddly ill-conceived or a tad staid. Many are to be returned to like old, knowing friends.

Much of his attention was put to Mahler and Bruckner, the latter’s Seventh being his trademark, the work with which he retired in 2019. Neither his gorgeous 1978 account with the Concertgebouw, nor his marginally more monumental repeat with Chicago in 2007, should be missed.

Introductions to his Beethoven and Wagner, his Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, his Bartok and his Stravinsky remain easily available, but his best work can take some searching: an amazingly convincing set of Liszt’s symphonic poems; a Vaughan Williams survey in which the lows are desperately low but the highs are exceptionally high; Mahler symphonies taped live at a series of Christmases in Amsterdam; cleareyed, sensitive Mozart operas with forces from Glyndebourne, where he was music director for a decade; Ravel, as glistening with the Concertgebouw as with the Boston Symphony Orchestra later on; radio broadcasts that go as far as Henze, Takemitsu and Ligeti; a Strauss “Alpine Symphony” of rare humanity; a Brahms cycle from Boston that unfolds with unforced, unforgettable patience.

It was in Brahms that I last heard him, in his final run with the Boston Symphony in 2018, an account of the Second Symphony that, I wrote then, had “nothing wistful or valedictory about it,” just that “familiar, staunch certainty.” It was scrappy, but it glowed with the same warmth as the Mahler I had heard a decade before in London — with that same sanity and wisdom.

Apt, for the conductor who might well have been the wisest of them all.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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