Last word from Bernard Haitink

Last word from Bernard Haitink


norman lebrecht

August 22, 2019

The conductor gives his farewell concert in Lucerne on September 6.

The day before, the festival will present a book launch – a volume of interviews with Peter Hagmann and Erich Singer titled Bernard Haitink: Dirigieren ist ein Rätsel (conducting is a mystery).

The last word.



  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I am so grateful in the last few years I have been able to attend some of his performances (but not that many) in London & Amsterdam. In each instance, during the performance there was not a hint of old age, unlike many other conductors. At the end of the performances,however, he looked alarmingly exhausted. I am not surprised that he is retiring, but I wish I was lucky enough to attend more of his performances.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      We have been so fortunate for YEARS to have Bernard Haitink as a regular visitor to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There have rarely been Haitink concerts that weren’t that good; most have been excellent or better. One thing’s for sure – what Haitink accomplishes seems to not be captured in recordings. Non-local friends who have heard me gushing about Haitink live have wondered how their opinions could be so different based on his recordings. Until they’ve heard him live themselves. A Haitink performance is never flashy. Instead, it’s just deeply musical and real music-making with everyone engaged trying their hardest. He doesn’t go through the motions like too many highly successful conductors. The difference is obvious.

      • Peter Phillips says:

        Yes, it is possible to have reservations about some of Haitink’s studio recordings – he’s not alone in that – but I suggest that his Berlin PO Mahler recordings have the intensity of live performances. I cannot understand why Philips never completed the cycle.

    • Jerome Hoberman says:

      I remember him looking exhausted at the end of concerts in the ’80s — not a matter of age, but that he has always given everything in performance; never held anything back.

  • Gustavo says:

    There’s a related interview with Peter Hagmann about Haitink on Deutschlandfunk (German-Swiss).

  • lohengrinloh says:

    I am reading the book now. It is well-written.

  • Edgar Self says:

    A rarity: a great, modest conductor. I hope there’s an English translation. Hard to think of many such books, although interviews offer material. Furtwaengler’s essays and “Gespraeche ueber Musik” of pre-WWII interviews with Irene Abendroth plus a post-war chapter; and Bernstein’s brilliant lectures. Beecham wrote a book or two, and Bruno Walter one on Mahler.

    I just read on line a charming 2009 Haitink interview with Tom Service of The Guardian.

    Now Haitink is 90 and retiring to his home on Lake Lucerne. Many years ago he brought the Concertgebouw to Berkeley, sprinting on stage for Mahler’s Ninth. More recently there were dozens of concerts in Chicago as principal guest conductor and interim director between Barenboim and Muti.

    A CSO principal thought Haitink in a class by himself among their conductors. Much Bruckner and Mahler. Not demonstrative, but solid.

    • Ed says:

      Yes, and the concert in Zellerbach Hall was interrupted by an anti-war demonstrator shouting things from the audience. The year was 1969, at the end of my first year of grad school. Haitink calmly waited until the noise ended, as I recall, and then proceded to do his work.

      (I also heard him do a Mahler Second in Dresden in February 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of that city. At the end, there was complete silence. No applause. As I walked down the steps to leave the Semperoper, I could see many elderly Dresdners with tears in their eyes. A most memorable moment in my concert-going.)

      Ed Gordon

      • Peter Phillips says:

        The Dresden concert is available on a Profil cd. Another performance of M2 marked the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Rotterdam. It can be seen on YouTube.

  • Michel says:

    Radu Lupu, Bernard Haitink …. two great voices who will be missed.

    • Ruben Greenberg says:

      Michel, I heard them together; Lupu and Haitink. They are two of a kind and as you said, will be greatly missed. Thanks for the memories and a long happy retirement to both of them.

  • Robert Eshbach says:

    It will be a sad day. If I have a favorite, it would be he —

    I remember well his masterclasses at Tanglewood. A characteristic remark: “I don’t have the answer. But I have some experience…”

    Yes, SOME experience.

    A great musician and a lovely man.

  • Rob says:

    He recorded the best, the finest Bruckner 7 I have ever heard.

    1966 Concertgebouw.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    He set a very high standard with his consistently great Philips recordings – particularly with the Concertgebouw – throughout the late ’60s, 1970’s and early 1980’s. His Philips recordings with the London Phil. (LPO) were really good too. We can safely place these in the same conductor/orchestra pantheon as Karajan/Berlin, Szell/Cleveland, Bernstein/N.Y., Ormandy/Philly (sorry, I like many Ormandy recordings), etc. As a Mahler enthusiast, I owe a lot of gratitude to Bernard Haitink.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Don’t apologize for liking Ormandy, Barry….
      I heard him and the PO live three times and they were among the greatest listening experiences I have ever had.

  • Pedro says:

    In Amsterdam, Munich, Hamburg, Milan, I was among those who hoped to attend there another concert by the greatest conductor of the 21st century ( so far, but I don’t’ think any of the present younger Maestros will go up to the same level ). Unfortunately, those Bruckner 7, Beethoven 9, Deutsches Requiem and Missa Solemnis were his last appearances in those cities. I still have Salzburg and Lucerne to go. He deserves to rest but I very much wanted to hear him conducting Mahler 2, 6 and 8 as well as his Schöpfung, and more operas than Ballo in Maschera and Parsifal in London and Pelléas in Paris.

  • Spamalot says:

    Norman: are you aware of any plans for an English edition?

  • Maria says:

    Hope the book comes out in English.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==“I don’t have the answer. But I have some experience…”

    Haha – Brilliant. Thanks – that is such a typical BH comment

  • Vaquero357 says:

    Just got done listening to his Bruckner Sixth with the Chicago Symphony from October 2018. Nothing could sound less like the work of a conductor who was (or almost was) 90 years old! Fresh, vital, incisive, and yet with a full grasp of Bruckner’s overall Gothic architecture…. Yeah, that guy has a little experience!!

    Haitink was one of my favorite conductors when I first got seriously interested in classical music. Then I hit some of his 1970s and ’80s recordings, which sounded rather bland and “on autopilot,” so I lost interest in the conductor for a while. If I remember correctly, even Haitink admits he was kind of in a rut and not doing his best at that period.

    The big turn around in my assessment of BH came during his 2006-10 music advisorship of the Chicago Symphony, when he gave the orchestra the artistic guidance and continuity it needed to get through the long interregnum between the end of Barenboim’s directorship and the start of Muti’s. Many of those CSO/Haitink performances are among the best I’ve ever heard him do! Haitink was back on my list of favorite, “do-not-miss” conductors. In a lot of ways, the Muti Era has been a letdown in comparison – EXCEPT when Haitink or Manfred Honeck guest conduct!

    I agree that the sheer physical demands of conducting become problematic for nonagenarian conductors. I was at Stanislav Skrowaczewski’s last concert (with the Minnesota Orchestra) before his final illness and passing – Bruckner’s Eighth. Stan stood through the entire 85 minutes of the piece, but he was so frail he could wield only a pencil-sized baton. Didn’t hear that in the music, though – an Eighth as powerful and propulsive as Haitink’s Sixth. A couple years ago, I heard Haitink state matter-of-factly in an interview about the Mahler Third he was conducting at the Proms, that it would be his last performance of the piece. Kind of stopped me in my tracks, but I realized that yes, he’s right: he was in his late 80s, the piece is not performed that often, and it is pretty physically demanding for the conductor (I thought of Skrowaczewski)….. and I listened to the webcast of that concert with extra attention!

    Like everybody else, looking forward to an English edition of the book. Haitink interviews were always fun to listen to: no sentimentality, no BS from a very pragmatic, yet wonderfully gifted Dutchman. I hope that in retirement he shares some of his Experience with the younger generations – and that they *listen* to him!

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Haitink does Bruckner 6 very well. Check out both his Dresden and Munich recordings of it, as well.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Northwestern University’s excellent stuent/facuty symphony orchestra under Victor Yampolsky have played Mahler’s Third and Shostakovich in
    Evanston as well as what I heard with the Chicago SO downtown from Haitink, Boulez, and Jaap van Zweden’s Bruckner.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      Not surprised a bit! Probably about 25 years ago, Yampolsky was the conductor of a local community orchestra I used to go to (my mother still does) – an EXCELLENT conductor. A motivated, engaged student group can sound amazingly good.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        Just this last weekend Victor Yampolsky (son of David Oistrakh’s long-time pianist) gave his final concert with the Peninsula Music Festival after 34 years of being at the helm.

  • Edgar Self says:

    The Mahler tradition in Amsterdam dates from Mahler himself, who conducted his symphonies there. Mengelberg and Diepenbrock were among his early disciples, along with Oskar Fried, Klemperer, and Bruno Walter. Fried recorded the “Resurrection” in 1924 in primitive sound.

    Bruno Walter knew Mahler for 17 years, working with and under him, and independently. Mahler played the unpublished scores of “Das Lied von der Erde” and the Ninth to Walter, who led their premieres and later recorded both live in Vienna. The Ninth is dedicated to Walter.

    I never saw Bruno Walter conduct Mahler, only Mozart and Bruckner. Hitink’s Mahler symphonies with the CSO were exemplary.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Thanks, David K. Nelson. At a Northwestern U. concert, before conducting Shostakovich’s 11th, Victor Yamplsky spoke briefly about his father’s taking him to hear its premiere.

    Yampolsky is an undemonstrative conductor, like Haitink, but gets spectacular results from the NU orchestra. Their Shostakovich was as good as, or better than, what I heard the CSO play downtown for Solti, Haitink, Rostropovich, or Rozsdestvensky.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your reviews in FANFARE over the years and hope you are still writing them.

  • Stephanie Patterson says:

    Is this book coming out in English? I’d love to read it!