Bernard Haitink directed the final concert in the Concertgebouw Orchestra's three-concert Barbican residency, a fitting choice given that the 83-year-old has been conducting Amsterdam's great orchestra since 1956, serving as principal conductor from 1961 to 1988. He is also fondly loved by British audiences, making the combination unmissable.
The programme for the afternoon concert consisted of a single work: Bruckner's Fifth Symphony. One of the great symphonies, spanning some 80 minutes, it is also one of the most delicate, ambiguous in emotion and a minefield of potential interpretative wrong turns. From its unassuming first notes – issued by the cellos in perfectly synchronised and tempered pizzicato – it was clear the performance would be something special; from the first fortissimo tutti, it was also clear that Haitink knew how to use Bruckner's stranded gestures to anticipate but not overshadow the great apotheosis that would come only with the first theme's return in the fourth movement. In the intervening hour of music, the orchestra showed itself above reproach, not just in terms of precision, or in the legendary beauty and warmth of tone, but in the degree to which these qualities were immersed in serving the work.
Haitink, of course, has been conducting this piece since the 1960s, recording it with the Concertgebouw in 1972, and remains one of the most assured Brucknerians of his, or indeed any, generation. This was evident in the evenly breathed phrasing, the layered textures of the second movement, and of course the unflinching focus on the work's great culmination. Though flecked with tragedy, this is music that fills your lungs and realigns your body, setting you up for weeks to come. It was also an experience that will stay with me for years to come.
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