Bernard Haitink – An appreciation

by Ben Hogwood

Last week we heard the sad news of the death of Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink at the ripe old age of 92.

Haitink was a special man indeed, seen by many as the last in a long line of ‘old school’ conductors. He was an artist of great craftsmanship and elegance, who earned the respect of his peers through an incredibly long career that only ended in 2019.

The tributes flooding in from ensembles the conductor worked with say everything about Haitink as a man. The Salzburg Festival declared, “The music world has lost one of its very greatest. His aim was never to triumph; probably that is why his interpretations became such triumphs.” The Berliner Philharmoniker praised how “He always impressed and inspired us with his qualities – his great craftsmanship, his perfect knowledge of the score, his warm, noble bearing.” From Sir Simon Rattle, an insight borne of personal experience: “He was one of the rare giants of our time, and even rarer and more precious, a giant full of humility. My dear Bernard, we keep you deep in our hearts.”

Like many people I have had the pleasure of listening to Haitink’s recordings for many years, but my first live memories go back to the first ever BBC Proms concert I attended in September 1997. There he conducted the European Union Youth Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony no.7, following a sensitive account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 where the soloist was Emanuel Ax. By coincidence the same works and soloist featured at Haitink’s last Prom in 2019, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic.

I also saw Haitink at the Proms in 2005, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra as soloist Hélène Grimaud performed the Ravel Piano Concerto. After the interval, Haitink gave a characteristically poised account of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, which left its mark on this particular listener for days:

I remember too a very special pair of Proms in 2011, Haitink and Ax united once again for Brahms with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, one of several ensembles with which the conductor forged a special relationship.

As a recording artist, Haitink gave us a vast array of special symphony, concerto and opera recordings. He recorded multiple symphony cycles of Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann, not to mention landmark collections of Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams symphonies with the Concertgebouw and London Philharmonic Orchestras, and fine cycles of Rachmaninov and Beethoven piano concertos with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Alfred Brendel respectively. That’s before we even get to opera! There he delivered much-loved recordings of Mozart, Wagner, Richard Strauss and Britten to highlight just a few.

I have delved into the discography for a set of recordings with personal significance – which can be accessed on the Spotify playlist below. They include Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich and begin with Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is safe to say that Bernard Haitink will occupy a special place in the heart of many a musician and listener, and this gives just a small number of reasons why:

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