Haitink’s dispassionate readings of Bruckner have consistently impressed for nearly 50 years. This 2013 live performance of the Austrian’s last symphony does not disappoint. Haitink draws much lush playing from the LSO strings and an electrifying coda to the first movement. His reading of the scherzo is slightly mannered but the hint of rubato gives the ponderous principal theme a taut climax.
The slow movement is the most challenging part of the symphony. Bruckner worked on this from his death bed. Having dedicated the entire symphony to ‘the Lord God’, it is hard not to think of the movement as, in Harnoncourt’s phrase, ‘an altercation with the composer’s own dying.’ Bruckner takes the listener into another world of dissonant chords and bitonality. Haitink avoids emphasising the crunchy chords but he does not seem to want to suppress them either. The recording engineers perhaps have done that for him. Certainly the climax in the slow movement, notable for its harsh trombone chords sounds a little tame and the Wagner tubas play their notes with almost clinical coolness. But Haitink’s Bruckner is nothing if not disciplined, and wary of any exaggeration. The disc will become a classic.