Top Ear

Bernard Haitink: The Symphony Edition

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Jeremy Lee writes

Hard to believe, but Bernard Haitink has already been conducting for almost 60 years, and his time as the chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra (possibly the orchestra that he is most associated with) spanned a good 25 years.  To commemorate the Dutch maestro’s 85th birthday, Decca has seen it fit to re-release the Bernard Haitink Symphony Edition originally released on Philips (and long out of print), consisting of the symphony cycles by Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schumann and Tchaikovsky, all played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra (despite the fact that, in the case of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler, Haitink has remade them many other times).

Haitink is generally viewed as a “self-effacing” conductor, one that allows the music to do all the speaking, and to some, the relative dearth of individual, distinctive interpretative ideas may be a byword for blandness.  While many Haitink recordings may give the listener such an impression, Haitink was really at his peak during his Concertgebouw years, and few Haitink/Concertgebouw recordings dating from this period are truly boring or uninteresting.  In fact, the younger Haitink showed an ear for drama and excitement that is sometimes lost in his present, wizened self, and most of the recordings featured in this box show that characteristic.

Some have even said that the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the time managed to deliver a spectacular performance not with Haitink, but despite Haitink, and though I think that statement’s much too extreme, I understand that sometimes the credit of a great Haitink performance had to be given not to Haitink but to his spectacular orchestra.  The old Concertgebouw sound–sporting velvety, precise strings, pungent woodwinds, buzzy horns, shrill, vibrato-laden brass, brittle cymbals, un-percussive timpani (!) and odd tam-tam–was a unique and distinctly recognizable sound that has gone since the mid-80s and replaced by a faceless, “modern” orchestral sound (excellent woodwinds are what is left), something quite regrettable as I much prefer the characterful old sound.  But no matter what sound the RCO produced, there’s no discounting the fact that the playing always was and still is drop-dead spectacular.  So the RCO-fest represented in these discs not only showcased one of the greatest living maestros in his prime, but also showcased the diacritical timbral qualities and excellent playing of a top-notch orchestra.

Priced at around HK$600-800 (depending on your retailer), this 36 CD set comes with a sturdy box cover and a lemon-yellow inner box–very fresh and attractive in my opinion.  The booklet notes are the same as those that came with the individual installments of Philips’ Haitink edition, while the discs are all individually housed in thin cardboard slipcases.  The presentation on the whole is very satisfying.  My only concern is that the discs are hard to locate individually as all the cardboard slipcases are white in color; the Abbado Symphony Edition on DG has different colors for different composers represented, which is a very thoughtful design.


These Beethoven performances were recorded in the digital era (1985-1987) and were remakes of a previous, analog set with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  In many ways, these performances improve significantly over those versions, as can be heard from the superior playing, more characterful sound and more attention to detail.  Haitink’s trademark care for balance and structure is evident everywhere, and I should single out the finale of the Ninth for being one of the most structurally coherent performances I’ve heard–flawless mastery of tempo relationships and transitions.  And speaking of which, it’s also one of the best sung performances, casting the unbelievably beautiful-sounding Lucia Popp (certainly she has never sounded better for Tennstedt!), to say nothing of Peter Schreier’s jolly tenor, and even the Netherlands Radio Choir sings absolutely perfectly (diction is exceptionally clear).  Besides, the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth are also very strong performances that, while by no means interpretively unique, are so beautifully played and sincerely expressed that you could be convinced less really is more.

That said, there are a few problems.  Besides its general lack of interesting ideas, compared to sets by Wand, Barenboim, Bernstein or even Karajan, there is a conspicuous lack of that kind of Beethovenian struggle that manifests themselves so prominently in those sets mentioned.  What is more, Haitink turned to a more historically-informed style in his LSO re-remakes, using the new Barenreiter editions. To these ears, this new style yielded better results in Beethoven–it moulded exceptionally thrilling versions of the Fifth, Seventh and Eighth.  Still, on this set’s virtues alone, I’d say it’s nothing less than respectable, and the playing and singing really is impeccable–with the Concertgebouw, it couldn’t be otherwise.


Like his Beethoven, Haitink has recorded three Brahms sets, one with the Concertgebouw (this one), one digitally with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and most recently, one with the LSO.  But unlike his Beethoven, this Concertgebouw version is not only the best of the three, it’s one of the best sets money can buy.  In fact, while it shares many of the same virtues as the Beethoven set–great sound and playing, attention to detail and structure and balance and so on–somehow this style seems to suit Brahms’ lyrical idiom more than that of the angst-filled Beethoven.

So the Second symphony’s first three movements are as relaxing and benign as possible–even slightly laid back–and you start to wonder if he would transfer the same characteristics to the vivacious finale.  But no:  he confounds expectations by offering one of the liveliest finales ever recorded.  The Third’s finale is also highly dramatic and moving under Haitink’s baton, and the difficult first movement has rarely been as flawlessly managed.  I suppose the high point of the cycle is the performance of the Fourth, of which dramatic elements (uncharacteristic of Haitink) amazed me tremendously when I first heard it:  the first movement’s grinding canon-like coda, horns pealing their hearts out, culminated in such a spectacular climax I was quite taken aback, and the finale’s tension never slackened and built up to a very impressive finish.  The second movement is as warm and melancholy as one could wish for, while the scherzo packs quite a punch.  I have no problems considering this Fourth as great, if not greater, than those established versions such as Giulini and Klemperer.  The First, a slightly staid performance that doesn’t catch fire until the final bars of the last movement, doesn’t rise to the same level as the performance of 2, 3 and 4, but it’s a fine performance nonetheless.

The couplings, the Tragic and Academic Festival Overtures, the Haydn Variations and the Hungarian Dances 1, 3 and 10, are similarly well done (the woodwinds shine in the Haydn).  Also included are performances of the 1st and 2nd Serenades, and they are marvelous, with spectacular woodwind playing that outclasses his LSO remake of the 2nd.  As a whole, while this Brahms cycle may have been overshadowed by sets by Klemperer, Karajan, Böhm and so on, it really doesn’t deserve to as it’s one of the most satisfying versions on the market.  (If you want to obtain this set separately, Decca has also released it on a Collectors’ Edition set named “Symphonies and Concertos”.)


This set of Bruckner has been released twice on Philips in different guises, but both are now out of print (I own the earliest version, on Haitink Edition).  Recorded from 1963 to 1972, these performances represent Haitink’s very first thoughts on these symphonies–I say this because Haitink has rethought many of these symphonies many times, both on Philips and on other orchestral in-house labels.

Haitink leads convincing accounts of the early symphonies (0-3), though some say the Vienna remake of the Third is better (I haven’t heard it).  Meanwhile, of the more popular later symphonies (4-9), Haitink mostly impresses.  The Fourth is full of poetry, though in terms of excitement it can’t match Barenboim/CSO (indeed, no other version can), while the Fifth is very restrained and flowing, and it ends with a most uplifting brass chorale (here the Concertgebouw brass section comes to the fore and displays a really golden tone).  The Sixth is neat, though not particularly distinctive (hear Klemperer or Jochum).

Then we come to the last three symphonies.  Haitink’s Seventh is mostly glorious.  It’s clear from the start that Haitink stresses the lyrical aspects of the score, as can be shown not least by the first movement’s flowing tempo, and the fluidity of the phrasing in those long melodic lines is enrapturing.  The Adagio starts with a glorious balance between strings and Wagner tubas, while the main theme played by the strings have seldom sounded so mellifluous and transparent, and my only reservation concerns the beautiful F sharp major second subject which is rather indifferent and rushed.  It’s capped by a spectacular climax, with the cymbals entering at the perfect moment, and the Finale is magisterial without sounding heavy-handed or ponderous.  The Ninth, too, is an exceptionally worthy effort, with a gorgeously paced and layered first movement and Adagio that sandwiches a shadowy and powerful Scherzo that impresses in sheer precision and balance what it may lack in terms of speed.  Some may prefer the digital remakes on Philips of both symphonies, or even prefer the recent re-remakes on orchestral house-labels(the 7th with the CSO and the 9th with the LSO), but even on their own the earliest Seventh and Ninth are fantastic performances.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Eighth, for it is the later Vienna Philharmonic version that is to be preferred (but avoid the recent one on the RCO house label).  That’s not only because the later version is better played and paced, but because this Concertgebouw version, even considered individually, is not very satisfying.  At 74 minutes, it’s one of the fastest versions ever, but it doesn’t contribute to excitement more than it contributes to the overwhelming notion that he’s rushing the music through.  At a breathtaking pace, he charges through the first movement without stopping to sniff the flowers, and the Finale, too, is hectic and disorganized, with a rushed conclusion.  In fact the only really nice thing about it is the (thankfully unhurried) Adagio.

That Eighth aside, this Bruckner cycle is mostly rewarding, and even if Jochum (DG/EMI), Barenboim (DG/Warner) and Wand’s sets (RCA x2) may be more consistent, Haitink’s achievement here is not to be sniffed at.


This Mahler set is the only individual set of the six here that has never gone out of print since it was first released on Philips’ Haitink Edition.  It’s also one of the first Mahler sets recorded, and its recording dates (1962-1971) makes it roughly contemporaneous with the sets by Bernstein (Sony) and Kubelik (DG).  Given Haitink’s general artistic demeanor, it’s not surprising to note that compared to the aforementioned conductors, Haitink tends to underplay the wild contrasts and diminish the huge emotional canvas that is true to Mahler’s compositional style.  But that isn’t to say that there isn’t anything good about Haitink’s Mahler.  Quite the contrary:  it’s one of the better cycles recorded.

Let’s start with the duds, of which problems stem mostly from Haitink’s understated style.  The First’s finale lacks physicality, while the first movement is rather rushed, and the only interesting thing is Haitink’s special treatment of the trumpets in the Klezmer music in the funeral march (actually not unlike Kubelik’s).  Meanwhile, the Fourth and Fifth are good but nothing special, the Sixth is just plain boring, miles away from his astounding live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Concertgebouw’s “Mahler Feest” (not to be confused with his remake on Philips), with relentlessly underplayed climaxes and hammers that would might as well be placed off-stage (I actually dozed off midway through the Finale), and the Eighth is similarly bland, however well-played and sung, as is the Tenth’s Adagio.  The Ninth would actually be one of my favorite performances had it not been for the weakest first-movement climax yet recorded and the ending of the Rondo-Burleske that just doesn’t pick up the pace at all.

But then no Mahler cycle is perfect, and the rest of the performances are splendid.  The Second is an overlooked performance that is highly dramatic and passionate, climaxing with a gratifyingly grand and expansive final chorus, while the Third is refreshingly exhilarating in the first and third movements (woodwinds!) and eloquent and poetic in the last three movements.  The Seventh is exactly one of those cases where the credit rests on the Concertgebouw sound, and where Haitink impresses with his unforced and un-histrionic view of this black sheep in Mahler’s symphonies.  The Ninth, reservations aside, is a beautiful performance with a flowing first movement and a red-blooded finale, and featuring a rustic, nasty second movement (woodwinds!) and a poised Rondo-Burleske.  I just wished that Decca had included his Das Lied von der Erde with James King and Janet Baker, one of the greatest performances of the work.  But no matter:  that can be obtained at budget price from Eloquence.

The main virtues of all these performances, no matter bland or not, are the Concertgebouw’s flawless playing (excellent playing isn’t always a given in Mahler cycles), the fact that the Concertgebouw, an orchestra with a Mahlerian tradition, is playing, and the generally excellent sound, in that order of importance.  For anyone who is in the market for a Mahler set, Haitink is quite recommendable, if certainly not the last word.


Haitink only recorded these Schumann performances, from 1981-1984, and they are very fine:  excellently played, beautifully phrased and well recorded.  But you know that already, and given that, there isn’t much else left of these comfortable, cheerful yet predominantly safe performances that seldom offer any sort of interesting musical ideas. While Manfred is a very fine and eloquent performance, Rhenish in particular can’t compare with those legendary performances that Bernstein and Giulini delivered, good though it is, and the 2nd’s scherzo is quite matter-of-fact.  Still, nothing ever goes wrong, and Haitink’s integrity and consistency of interpretation is to be commended.  A fine set that only pales under the shadow of the greatest cycles by Bernstein, Sawallisch, and Barenboim.


Haitink’s Tchaikovsky, recorded from 1963 to 1979, is a pretty ear-opening set, and I think that’s because Haitink chooses to eschew that kind of Tchaikovskian bombast that we normally hear from sets such as Muti, Karajan and Mravinsky–so Tchaikovsky doesn’t have to be performed with overwhelming fire or flashiness or sentimentality, after all.  Indeed, the Fourth’s extrovert finale is uniquely thrilling, not because it’s particularly fast or ferocious, but because Haitink allows all those scurrying string figures to be heard note-for-note, exceptionally clearly.  The Fifth, too, is a gorgeously unsentimental performance, beautifully shaped and detailed (and with a truly golden horn solo in the Adagio), while the Sixth is equally fine, though the third movement slightly hangs fire.  And of the early symphonies, there are few recordings as well done as Haitink’s.  To the couplings:  Manfred, Francesca da Rimini, Marche Slave, Romeo and Juliet and The Storm are all lovely performances, but Capriccio italien and 1812 just aren’t physical enough (these pieces really cry out for more oomph).  Overall, a very good Tchaikovsky set, up there with the best.


If you’re a fan of Haitink, as I am, you don’t need encouragement, but even if you aren’t, you can safely purchase this set:  few performances are less than good, and on average the hits far outweigh the misses.  Even though there are some uninteresting performances, there’s no denying that Haitink is always musical and tasteful.  And at this price, it’s a great bargain. Highly recommendable.


  • Album name:  Bernard Haitink:  The Symphony Edition
  • Performers:  Bernard Haitink (conductor);  Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
  • Works included:
    • Beethoven:  Symphonies 1-9;  Egmont Overture
    • Brahms:  Symphonies 1-4;  Serenades;  Haydn Variations;  Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures;  Hungarian Dances 1, 3, 10
    • Bruckner:  Symphonies 0-9
    • Mahler:  Symphonies 1-10
    • Schumann:  Symphonies 1-4;  Genoveva and Manfred Overtures
    • Tchaikovsky:  Symphonies 1-6;  Manfred;  Marche Slave;  Capriccio italien;  Francesca da Rimini;  1812 Overture;  The Storm;  Romeo and Juliet
  • Label:  Decca 478 6360
  • No. of discs:  36
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD/DDD

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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