BERNARD HAITINK -- Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Allegedly the purpose of this set, in addition to honoring Haitink, is to give the collector the opportunity to hear this conductor in repertory that he didn't record, although it does include a number of works that he did set to disc: Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, Mahler's Symphony No. 6, Jeux of Debussy, November Steps by Takemitsu, and Symphony No. 10 by Shostakovitch, although Haitink's recording of the latter is with the London Philharmonic instead of the Concertgebouw. Here is a superb, varied collection displaying Haitink's innate musicianship and taste. Like many conductors, Haitink is more vital in live performances than in recording sessions, and he has the advantage of fine Radio Nederland sonics which capture the rich sounds of the Concertgebouw. Works included were selected by Lodewijk Collette of Radio Nederland and Daniël Esser, a member of the Orchestra. I would have selected some repertory not included here -- and omitted some that is -- and it is unfortunate that five of the CDs have a playing time of less than an hour - there are so many works that could have been included! But what is here is outstanding by any standards. The fourteen CDs come in a simple box; no notes on individual slipcases, but there is a booklet in Dutch, English, French, German and Spanish. Program notes are by Marius Flothuis, Dutch musicologist, performer and composer, long associated with the Concertgebouw (one of his works is included); he was "artistic director" of the Orchestra from 1955 to 1974. But often the notes tell us nothing about the music, which is so important in lesser-known works, and nothing about the soloists -- it would have been of interest to know how often the selected soloists appeared with the Concertgebouw and what else they played. And there are no texts for vocal/choral music, although this might not be a problem for most collectors who might have this available from other recordings; texts surely should have been provided for the works of Diepenbrock and Flothius. The set is organized by general subject.
CD 2 begins with Vladimir Ashkenazy's performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5 recorded in 1977 a few years after his London recording with the LSO/Andre Previn. Although a tad quicker than the recording, the performance seems rather subdued. Then follows the Piano Concerto by Dutch composer Kees Van Baaren, recorded in 1970 six years after its composition, with Theo Bruins as soloist. The Concertgebouw included this for seven performances on an American tour, and it seems a rather odd choice. The 14-minute work has clusters of notes, bursts of sound, and no real tune per se, rather sounding like an audacious experiment that could have been written three decades earlier by George Antheil. The performance is spectacular in its own way, with particularly outstanding sonics from the Radio engineers. The CD ends with the gem of the disc, Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Geza Anda as soloist, recorded at a 1972 concert.
CD 3 is called "Violin Concertos" and offers two fascinating performances. David Oistrakh made several commercial recordings of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, but here he is heard in a scintillating, assured performance recorded in 1972. Of equal interest is Isaac Stern's playing of Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 recorded in 1968 when Stern was at the height of his career.
CD 4 offers short value in playing time (52:41) but high musical values. Jean Decross (a member of the Concertgebouw?) is a superb soloist in Frank Martin's Cello Concerto, recorded in 1970, and Zara Nelsova, recorded two years later, is magnificent in Sir William Walton's Cello Concerto, well capturing the many wistful, intimate passages. Unfortunate that another concerto wasn't included, perhaps Schelomo? There is well over a half-hour of unused CD time.
Disk 5 is called "Orchestral Songs, Opera" and opens with Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder recorded in 1971 with Janet Baker as soloist. She was at her prime during this period; a fine performance. Next follow excerpts from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov featuring Chinese bass Yi Kwei Sze, recorded in 1964. Sze is best known to collectors for his performance as Friar Lawrence in Munch's 1953 RCA set of Romeo and Juliet of Berlioz. He is a sensitive Boris, dramatic and assured. Excerpts are Boris's Monologue and the Clock Scene from Act II, and the Death of Boris from Act IV. The Netherlands Radio Choir participates in the latter; it is unfortunate the excerpts did not also include the Coronation Scene. How interesting it would have been to hear the many bells of that scene in the rich Concertgebouw acoustics! The CD is filled out with Strauss's Four Last Songs sung by Elisabeth Söderström, recorded in 1977. The soprano shows interpretive insight but vocally is uneven, far removed from the glories and security of Gundula Janowitz, also with Haitink and the Concertgebouw, recorded during the 1968 Holland Festival, six years before she made her superb recording with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Disk 6 is called "The Second Viennese School" and opens with Arnold Schönberg's challenging Erwartung, Op. 17, a dramatic monodrama in one act featuring soprano Dorothy Dorow, recorded in 1975. This is difficult listening for most; surely the participants do what can be done to make it accessible. More familiar fare follows, Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, recorded in 1968, and the same composer's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10, recorded the following year. Alban Berg's 32-minute Kammerkonzert concludes the disk, with soloists violinist Theo Olof and pianist Theo Bruins, recorded in 1964.
Disk 7 is called "The Sixties & Seventies" and will be tiresome if not irritating listening for many listeners. I have an intense dislike for music that consists of various plunks, twangs, outbursts of percussion, massed dissonance, long pauses in between notes, etc. "The Emperor's New Clothes," perhaps? Some listeners seem to find meaning to much of this; I don't. This disk opens with Hans Werner Henze's Antifone, recorded during a 1964 concert. To say this is difficult listening is perhaps an understatement, and it is to the credit of Haitink and the Concertgebouw that they are able to present it as well as they do. Henze's 16-minute score is followed by two works of Ligeti, Lontano and San Francisco Polyphony, from concerts in 1972 and 1979 respectively. Toru Takemitsu's November Steps, is an oasis of serenity and beauty on this CD; this is the only music in the set that does not have the performance date identified. Perhaps it is the same date as the released Philips live recording, December 1969, as the two soloists, Kinshi Tsuruta, biwa; and Katsuya Yokoyama, shakuhachi; are the same. Further relief for tortured ears is the concluding work, Mi-parti by Lutoslawski, from a concert in 1977.
Disks 8 and 9 are totally gratifying, devoted to "France." Disk 6 opens with Dutch composer Rudolf Escher's exquisite transcription of Debussy's Six Épigraphes antiques, a work Haitink never recorded commercially. What a pleasure it is to hear this delectable music so beautifully played. This is followed by Debussy's Jeux, from a concert in 1968, which Haitink did record. Then we have a treasure, with soprano Heather Harper as radiant soloist in a 1972 performance or Ravel's Shéhérazade. More Ravel concludes the CD, with baritone John Shirley-Quirk recorded the same year in Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. It is unfortunate there isn't more music on this CD; playing time is but 56:39.
Disk 9 opens with a fine performance of a suite from Roussel's Le Festin de l'Araignée in which the Orchestra produces exquisite sounds. I've heard a stunning broadcast by Haitink and his orchestra of the second suite from the same composer's Bacchus et Ariane; unfortunate this wasn't included - it easily could have been accommodated. Honegger's Symphony No. 5, subtitled Di tre re, recorded in 1967, is followed by a delightful performance of a suite from Poulenc's Les Biches in which both conductor and orchestra really sound as if they are having a great time. It is unfortunate Haitink's performance of the Symphony No. 2 by Henri Dutilleux wasn't included on these two CDs devoted to French music.
Disk 10 consists entirely of music of Igor Stravinsky never recorded commercially by Haitink. This choice of repertory is unfortunate, as his commercial recordings of the three great ballets, Petrushka, Firebird and The Rite of Spring (all with the London Philharmonic) are disappointing, as is his recent Philips recording of Rite with the Berlin Philharmonic. Radio tapes exist of Rite (I've heard them); I would have preferred for that to be on this CD in place of Threni and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. The CD opens with a magnificent performance of the ballet Orpheus recorded in 1962. Movements, with pianist Theo Bruins, was recorded in 1972, and Requiem Canticles, with mezzo-soprano Sophia van Sante and bass Günter Reich and the Netherlands Chamber Choir, was recorded in 1969. The CD is filled out with Threni performed by soprano Elisabeth Lugt, mezzo-soprano. Sophia van Sante, tenors Reinier Schweppe and Wim van Gerven, and basses Günter Reich and Andrew Foldi, again with the Netherlands Radio Choir, from a 1968 concert.
Disk 11 is devoted to music by Netherlands composers. Haitink and the Concertgebouw have a long history of promoting Dutch music. He has conducted more than fifty premieres of Dutch works, including twenty world premieres as well as often presenting Dutch music of the past. The CD begins with a glorious performance by Janet Baker recorded in 1971, Die Nacht of Alphons Diepenbrock which might be familiar to some from the fine Chandos recording (8878) which still is not, for whatever reason, listed in the current Schwann/Opus. Then there is a 20-minute ballet by Anthon van der Horst, Réflexions sonores, Op. 99, composed in 1963 for the 75th Anniversary of the Concertgebouw, a gentle set of pleasant dances with a prevalent air of sameness, from a 1965 concert. Marius Flothuis's Sonnet, Op. 9, with Jard van Nes as mezzo-soprano soloist, from a concert in 1962, is a lovely seven-minute work; it is unfortunate that there are no texts for this - or anything - in this set. The CD ends with two more samples of contemporary Dutch music, the first of which is Ton de Leeuw's Ombres, an eleven-minute work composed in 1960-61. Program notes for this, by Marius Flothuis, tell us little about the music. The CD ends with music by de Leeuw's student, Tristan Keuris, that turns out to be of considerable more interest than its predecessor. Again, the notes tell us little. Sinfonia, composed in 1974, is a thirteen-minute work of great complexity that ends softly and mysteriously. Haitink seems to have great affinity for it, and the music is enhanced by the rich orchestral sounds of the Concertgebouw.
We are back on familiar ground with the final three CDs in the set. CD 12 offers a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 6 in A Minor, recorded during a 1968 concert, a year before his superb Philips recording of the work. I find the Dutch Radio sound superior to the Philips studio effort. CD 13 contains Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7, from a concert in 1972, six years after his first Philips recording of the work. Symphony No. 7 was a favorite of Haitink's; he recorded it again in 1978; according to the fine new book Bruckner en het Koninklijk Concertgebouw-orkest which gives the history of Bruckner performances with the Concertgebouw (in Dutch only!), Haitink conducted the Seventh Symphony 34 times between 1961 and 1987; it was not his most-performed: No. 5 was given 37 performances, and No. 9, 35. The final CD in the set offers the Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93 of Dmitri Shostakovich, recorded during a concert in 1985, nine years after his London recording with the London Philharmonic. All movements except the third are slightly longer than the recording and there is an intensity missing in the studio effort. This is a superb performance, and a sonic showcase as well. With a playing time of just 56:42, we have another twenty minutes or so of unused CD space.
This is a most welcome set. Fine sonics, first-rate performances. Essential for Haitink/Concertgebouw fans.
R.E.B. (Sept. 1999)