Why was Haitink booed in Bartok?

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, November 19th 2003

Conductor: Bernard Haitink. Dresdner Staatskapelle.
  • Bela Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra
  • Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Symphony N°6 in B minor, Pathétique, op. 74.

When Bernard Haitink planned, as part of his 75th birthday celebrations, to bring the Dresdner Staatskapelle to Paris for a concert of Bartok and Tchaikovsky, he probably didn’t expect, at the end of part one, to be booed. It must have come as an unpleasant surprise. He certainly looked grim about it, as if he felt like booing back or spitting. The orchestra looked bemused. Admittedly, this was a lone booer, though – bad sign for Haitink - his booing wasn’t drowned, as is usually the case, by a surge of clapping and cheers. The polite, lukewarm applause continued.

Now, booing, I know, is not much approved of on the fora I frequent. And of course, the lone booer wasn’t me. But I think I may have guessed how he felt. When he planned, coughing up a substantial sum – perhaps even as part of his birthday celebrations - to hear the Dresdner Staatskapelle in Paris in a concert of Bartok and Tchaikovsky, he probably didn’t expect, during the Concerto for Orchestra, to be bored. It must have come as an unpleasant surprise.

That polite, lukewarm applause was for a polite, lukewarm performance. Anyone expecting a display of orchestral fireworks had come to the wrong guy. As if determined to be militantly Dutch, Haitink remained ostentatiously unostentatious throughout the Bartok. Tempi and dynamics were moderate. Showmanship was scrupulously shunned. Dresden’s supreme orchestra was kept on a leash.

Admittedly, there was great attention to detail and to individual sounds, an approach most successful in the slow middle movement: those creepy, bubbling glissandi, the odd business going on among harps and percussion and woodwind, were a great success. There was greater prominence than usual for middle parts: the violas were in front of the cellos, for instance.

But one the whole, this was drab and uncharismatic music-making, rather like the man himself, in tails that looked like they were made in Holland too. My feeling was that any shape or form or feeling came from the score itself; I wondered if it would have been any different (better, maybe?) if the perfectly capable Staatskapelle had been allowed to play without a conductor at all. Collectively, they may have shown less restraint and let rip.

Things got better during the Tchaikovsky. Haitink’s own body language showed he was more involved, and after a dull start, we reached that almighty crash with which Tchaikovsky wakes any putative dozers before the fugato section, and things took off somewhat. The crooked “waltz” was radiantly sunny thanks to Dresden’s gorgeous, rounded, woody strings; the march was almost rigidly, mechanically martial, in a businesslike, Dutch sort of way. But of course, with Haitink there was no hope of wallowing in romantic self-pity in the final movement. And, Dresden notwithstanding, I believe there were occasional problems of both balance (the trumpets certainly didn’t ring out from the rear, though I was in the most expensive seats) and coordination between strings and winds.

When you have in town one of Europe’s greatest orchestras (too seldom mentioned in discussions on websites) playing showcase pieces of this kind, you expect to have your wig and socks (or your shearling coat and ear-muffs) knocked off. Mine remained firmly in place all evening. That, I guess, is why the birthday boy was booed.

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