Conducting is one of those professions — being monarch is perhaps another — where the less you do, the more everyone loves you. Orchestral players, for example, tend not to complain about being let off early from rehearsals. I prefer my maestros to have their head under the bonnet: loosening, tightening, fixing, replacing. Much of the classical music world, however, fetishises the idea of ‘letting the music speak for itself’. As if ‘the music’ were an objective thing. As if the score were a rendering that could be printed out in 3D, rather than a map to be deciphered and interpreted.
This goes some way, I think, to explain the career of Bernard Haitink, who trades on niceness and anonymity — or, as the fan club likes to put it, on being self-effacing. Haitink is adored by orchestras. He’s conducted most of them. He turned 90 in March. His Prom last week with the Vienna Phil, performing Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, was billed as his final engagement in Britain. He shuffled on to the stage with a smart walking stick, looking as boyish as ever, shushing the excitable hall with his hands. His gestures were small, his smile broad. Charm personified. It’s easy to fall for. He’s had four wives.
The performance was assured, beautiful (as you’d expect from the Viennese) and a bit smug (ditto). Pretty unimpeachable then in every respect, unless what you want from a concert is to be shaken or overwhelmed or to remember the night for the freshness of the music-making rather than the sentiments of the occasion.
Sure, the strings were plush and cushiony, the horns golden, the pacing classy enough, and the epic and slippy descent of the brass in the Scherzo felt like you were watching a row of cranes slowly dominoing to the ground. But there was something missing. It was a performance at one remove, like an iPhone photo of an impressive view. Instagram Bruckner.
Proper Bruckner — monstrous, dumb, bizarre — has the capacity to reconfigure every atom in your body. It’s just about the closest music gets to the Large Hadron Collider. In Haitink’s hands, it all went a bit Werther’s Original.
Much more life was to be had in the first-half performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto by Emanuel Ax, who had replaced the ill Murray Perahia. What an indestructible technique Ax has. That titanium core allowed him to beat out the most intricate latticework, jagged runs that swooped downward while crisscrossing and looping the loop, all of which actually did feel like some mad bit of 3D printing. Ax would then melt this all down into ravishing pools of melody.
Ax is proof that nice guys don’t have to be boring — just as Barenboim and Domingo are proof that obnoxiousness is no bar to greatness. There is no moral monopoly on quality. Much beauty can come from ugliness.
Take John Eliot Gardiner. The conductor has been slowly munching his way through Berlioz’s orchestral works in his annual visits to the Proms with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. It has been the saving grace of recent Proms seasons. It was again. Last year we had the sub-zero temperatures of La Mort de Cléopâtre. This year: sun and booze. Benvenuto Cellini — that drunken, hiccupy belch of an opera.
The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is one of those great coarse period ensembles where the instruments sound as though they’re still in the process of being made. Generous, rude, ripe, they offer you not just the shiny, dolled-up, interview-ready version of each sound but the unwashed shadow with its stinky breath and bird’s-nest hair. I savoured every one of their joyous, farty intonation slips.
As always with Gardiner, the musical textures were doing the storytelling. Take the darting runs; they became a visceral component in this protein-rich account, the rushing blood that pumps through the work’s arteries and powers it on.
Berlioz’s drama stages art’s overthrow of religion — a triumph of debauchery and the aesthetic sublime. Aided by a troupe of inebriated metal workers, the sculptor Cellini takes on the Pope himself, and ultimately wins him over to art’s cause. It’s raucous and richly immoral stuff. But considering the work is about the victory of great artistry, the singing needed to be greater. It didn’t help that Tareq Nazmi’s lechy Pope Clement VII was vocally outclassing his opponents, including Michael Spyres’s weedy Cellini.
As ever, the semi-staging was only semi-necessary (and less than semi-good), but I enjoyed Lionel Lhote creeping around the stage as the baddie Fieramosca, going full ’Allo ’Allo!. The night, however, belonged to Gardiner, whose absolute commitment to bringing out every last oddity in the score verged on utter tastelessness (Haitink would have hated it) — and was all the more glorious for it.