Bernard Haitink / London Symphony Orchestra

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral"; Symphony No. 2

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What do these performances of Beethoven's Sixth and Second symphonies recorded at concerts given in November 2005 at the Barbican in London by Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra have to tell us about the hall, the musicians, and the music? Not much, as it turns out, that we didn't already know. We find out that the acoustics in the Barbican were deep and warm, but nowhere near clear enough with balances that favored the loudest instruments and inner lines that blurred above forte. We find out that the London Symphony, the British capital's most virtuosic orchestra for more than half a century, was still a superb ensemble with suave but strong strings, blended but characterful winds, molded but brilliant brass, and a tympanist of tremendous power and precision. We find out that Bernard Haitink, the preeminent Dutch conductor of his generation with a terrific stick technique and a more objective than subjective interpretive stance, had nothing to say about Beethoven's symphonies that hadn't been said before -- and he said it with less passion and conviction. Haitink's tempos are judicious, his phrasing is generous, his dynamics are restrained, and his emotions are reserved. Imagine a later Bruno Walter performance with more muscle and drive, but less heart and soul, and you'll have some idea of what to expect. We find out, in conclusion, that even music so great as Beethoven's symphonies can sound fairly ordinary in the wrong performance.

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