Bernard Haitink: the most important conductor of our time?

Bernard Haitink: the most important conductor of our time?


norman lebrecht

November 25, 2021

In my new monthly essay for The Critic I make an attempt to assess the significance of the elusive Dutch conductor, who died last month – and it’s one dimension larger than I imagined:

I was aware I was watching an outstandingly able maestro, one who had rare empathy for music and musicians. It took me longer to understand that the shy, unflashy Dutchman was a transformative conductor, changing the very nature of how music is made….

Haitink, though prolific on record, was not famous. When he asked why his sales did not match Karajan and Solti, producers urged him to give press interviews. But Haitink suffered from the Dutch tall poppy syndrome: raise your head high and it will be lopped off….

What was it that Haitink brought to conducting?…

Read on here.




  • Gustavo says:

    tall tulip syndrome

  • PS says:

    I could still only find his recent book in German but A Portrait in Four Movements features him and is a great read.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Everybody is entitled to their own opinions and have favourite maestros, but to describe Jochum as “dull” is so wide of the mark it has to be challenged. Listen to the set of Brahms symphonies (mono) recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1950s or most of the Bruckner symphonies he did in Dresden, not to forget the superb Missa Solemnis he did in Amsterdam in 1970 and you would have to come to a very different conclusion. It never pays to belittle great maestros from the past, and Jochum certainly was one of them.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    My favourite conductor, sadly missed. Thank you Norman an interesting piece.

  • PeterB says:

    A wonderful, even moving appraisal of a great maestro.

  • Amos says:

    By most accounts, BH was a tasteful, knowledgable, and thoughtful conductor. To suggest that his record sales lagged those of his contemporaries was due to a dearth of interviews is, imo, to conveniently overlook the usual lack of “apt” vitality in performances he led live and in-studio recordings. Perhaps the best evidence is offered by comparing the performances led by his predecessors with the CO van Beinum & Szell. Although BH & GS are often lumped together as “classical” conductors their performance results couldn’t be more different with the latter delivering consistently more innervating results.
    Based on comments from members of the orchestra it is undeniable that BH served a vital role in maintaining standards at the BSO in the period between JL and AN. That said there was never a sense of a great conductor leading a great orchestra in must hear performances.
    To suggest that BH’s tenure on the world stage was in any way a seminal event is to me an indictment on the state of conducting in the modern age. In thinking about what I regard as the golden age of conducting the most generous comparison to BH would be Adrian Boult and I find the latter much more convincing in terms of delivering sober but memorable performances. Perhaps we should take BH at his own assessment that his early elevation to lead the CO was due in part to those who were lost during the war. I hope John Borstlap weighs in.

  • Max Raimi says:

    I’m not sure what “important” means in this context. It is rather like the Great Pumpkin, in the “Peanuts” cartoons. According to Linus’s theology, he will visit the “most sincere” pumpkin patch each Halloween. Let’s just say he was an extraordinary man and an extraordinary musician, and those of us who experienced him feel very lucky for having done so. Not a bad thing to recall as we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the States.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Beautiful article, Norman.

    The most striking passage:

    “You know, I was nothing special back in my school days. There were so many of my peers that were much more talented than I was. But they were all Jewish boys, and they were murdered. I was all that was left — that is why I enjoyed the career I have had.”

    This, together with the Dutch Tall Tulip Syndrome, must have created a lifelong inner obstacle. Yet he had a big ego, as comes across from recordings, without it you simply cannot mould 90 different players to your hands; but obviously, his approach of letting the ego only be the spirit that makes the music come a live, all energy going into the music and have the personality entirely be absorbed within the music, is the best example of interpretation of a score.

    My suspicion is that being so inhibited in many other ways, music offered him an outlet and because it had to be channeled through such a small opening, it got the underlying intensity which makes his interpretations so compelling (like his Lied von der Erde / 1975 Philips Classics, with Baker and King).

    Therefore, in spite of some reports of dullness (which probably was, on the surface, rather a classicist and moderate approach), he is a great example of the right type of conductor.

  • klassikevin says:

    I feel lucky to read the great article of yours. It illuminated my vague feeling of Haitink’s music making again: the honesty, transparency, and sincerity. Thanks again!

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      You are right. My only regret for him is that he never came to Bayreuth. I know there are some rumors that they contacted him several times but he refused afraid to don’t control everything there. It was the same thing for Abbado.he didn’t want to have the same problems of Solti. But maybe it would have been fantastic.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I never heard Haitink in person but there are certainly many splendid recordings of his that I prefer and am glad to have, Bruckner in particular. Because even his early recordings all still sound very good his reputation will live on for a time because he’ll be continued to be listened to and judged by our own ears rather than just reputation and the written word.

    But I cannot quite come to consider him important, or the most important. The reputations of conductors are relatively fleeting in the sense that there are so many more music lovers who seek out and listen to recordings of vocalists of the past, including the distant past, and to a lesser extent to recordings of violinists, pianists and cellists of the past than there are for recordings by conductors of the past.

    I find it a little ironic, but not surprising, that the lasting reputations of conductors seems to rely so much on the sound of their recordings. We still listen to recordings of Walter, Stokowski, Reiner, to some extent Beecham, Boult, Barbirolli, Monteux, and Szell (all of whom began recordings in the 78 rpm era, and arguably in some cases did their finest work on 78s) because their stereo recordings still sound relatively modern, or at least not alienatingly antique. Their reputations remain strong, perhaps are even enhanced. Toscanini’s towering reputation seemed to fade with the onset of stereo, because for all practical purposes he did not record in stereo. By 1960 even his later and best sounding recordings sounded quite dated, as did those (with a few stereo recording exceptions) of Rodzinski, Cantelli, Mitropoulos, Koussevitzky, E. Kleiber with him — all highly praised, lauded, even revered, during their lives, but who recorded either very little in stereo or none at all, and thus on the back burner once their recordings took more effort to listen to. Except for a select few collectors or connoisseurs, they have become mostly just names, respected but we tend to get fuzzy about how they should be ranked.

    But even as just names, and here I (finally) get to my point, we remember Koussevitzky, Stokowski, Mitropoulos and some others more than we listen to them because of their interest in and championing of new music and new composers. I suspect it is Beecham’s ground-breaking Delius recordings that get listened to most now; his reputation as a Haydn conductor has faded.

    That to me is what makes a conductor of the past “important.” And that is why to my way of thinking Haitink is not so important as our host posits in his essay.

    • Amos says:

      As to the sound quality of older recordings, even a cursory search on Youtube provides numerous examples of “restored” editions that somehow manage to clarify and enhance, without distorting, recordings from the 50’s and 60’s.

    • Buxtehude says:

      There was a discussion recently, in a periodical like Strings, concerning which violinists of today would be remembered far into the future.

      After much back & forth on matters of technique, interpretation &c., someone brought matters to a halt with the David-Nelson-like observation that it was the performers who had worked with major composers, premiered great works, whose memory lived on, period.

      There are not a few musicians nowadays working like energizer bunnies to premiere “new works” but really, how much does this count anymore? I know it’s not for us to say, but still. To grow up in any proximity at all to such as Prokofiev, Gershwin, Shostakovich, Martinu — that’s really an ever-increasing matter of luck, isn’t it? A Power-Ball lottery!

      All the more so now that the cluster of audiences making up the musical public has shifted over, probably for good, to the kaleidoscope known as “popular music.” (Of course it was the public’s own fault: audiences weren’t good enough for Contemporary Classical Composers.)

      Popular, on the other hand, is self-renewing, various, always fresh, doesn’t require a graduate degree even for listening, or massive subsidies, moves and is moved by its audience.

      The Beatles are back in the news at the moment and I’ve long wondered whether their arrival helped start the accelerated decline of classical music as an industry: who back then could want anything more than what was suddenly coming at us?

  • Paul Johnson says:

    A brilliant article. I was lucky enough to be at three golden Mahler evenings conducted by the great man. He is greatly missed. He didn’t need to court the press. Like Claudio Abbado, he let the music speak.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Why must you build someone up by dissing others? Certainly Jochum was not a ‘dull Kapellmeister’, judging by his Bruckner recordings I have. You can praise someone without lambasting others. There is room for more than one approach to music making, you know!

  • Francesco Maria Colombo says:

    Thank you very much, Norman, for this profound and moving analysis.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Somehow I think BH is going to have a longer legacy than the preening Teodor.

    Mirror, mirror on the wall….

  • J Barcelo says:

    I never had a chance to hear Haitink in person. My loss, I’m sure. So I only know him through his many recordings. His style may not storm the heavens and make the earth tremble, but I find it very comfortable for home listening. It’s always controlled, beautifully shaped and musical. If I had heard a live performance as good as what the engineers captures on recording, I’d leave the hall very content. His cycles of Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Bruckner, even the Liszt tone poems, are records I can live with quite happily. I also happen to like his Debussy and Ravel from Boston. You who did have a chance to regularly hear him in concert are very blessed.

    • Amos says:

      Many of those of us who attended his BSO performance of Pelleas found it so comfortable that it was nothing short of somnambulant.

  • Bernard Von Herrmann says:

    Bernard Haitink was definitely a conductor on the sober, solid side of the spectrum, but who still managed to make some memorable recordings, and was perhaps more exiting in live performance. I still recall hearing him and the Concertgebouw at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, California, many years ago, perform a Haydn symphony (I forget which one); Straninsky’s Jeu de cartes; and Brahms 2nd symphony. It was glorious!

  • andy lim says:

    The answer on the question in the title by our host can only be, with all due respect: No.
    What does not mean Haitink should be denied his deserved position in Dutch musical life. The Concertgebouw orchestra, important and world reknowned since long (Mengelberg ?!) times did undoubtly contribute a more than substantial part to Haitink´s career as it did the other way.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    In my opinion, Daniel Barenboim is the best of our times.

  • MR says:

    An interesting question. Upon learning of his passing, my response here was: “I always found the sound he coaxed from orchestras to be the most exquisite.” It was if he cleansed the atmosphere of air and light pollution so one might actually see all the stars and planets. Another conductor I associate with exceptionally exquisite music making is Carlo Maria Giulini, so it was serendipitous learning how Haitink originally substituted for that maestro with the same esteemed orchestra he came to inherit. One wonders how much time the two may have spent together, and how much Haitink may have learned from Giulini. I’m also curious to know what music Haitink may have admired from different genres and cultures. My sense is that he had powerful influences beyond the immediate realm of Western classical music itself, perhaps even from other disciplines he admired if not necessarily mastered, adding richness and depth to his musical vision.

    • MR says:

      typo: It was as if he cleansed the atmosphere of air and light pollution so one might actually see all the stars and planets.

      • Amos says:

        I would substitute cleansed with sterilized. I recall a BSO Brahms 1st in which then Principal tympanist Firth seemed to try and infuse a bit of life with his opening strokes only to be reined in by BH and what followed was lovely, cleansed, and devoid of struggle.

    • Jackson says:

      Giulini was a far greater conductor than Haitink who was inspired on occasion and dull on others (both in concert and on disc). Haitink’s “Walküre” at Covent Garden was the dullest ever.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Haitink’s style and characteristics of conducting put me in mind of that of Herbert Blomstedt ( whom we should treasure as we are blessed to still have him on stage). This particularly resonates with me in their approach to Brahms and Bruckner.
    I have been fortunate not only to have heard them both live but also to have met them both.

  • Ruby Yacht says:

    Not at all. He was good, he was fine, but if you can find no better, it only means they don’t any of them measure up to the great maestros of the 20th century. His Shostakovich could not compare to the Russian maestros or Ormandy and Stokowski. He was better than Chailly, but no one today is of the highest caliber, except maybe Gergiev. Abbado was getting there. Why? None of them are sensitive to balance, color and dynamics nearly enough. They fly around too much, probably have too much hearing loss, and have stopped caring about style and expressiveness. I heard quite a few when Philadelphia was looking for a conductor. The only fine ones, exciting ones, were Fruhbeck de Burgos and Pretre. The rest were nothings. Elder, Wigglesworth, Rattle, Welser-moist, and especially Aschenbach. Sawallisch could rise at times, but his Moldau was the worst ever. So many bad choices. And now we have a showboat nothing.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Conductors with serious hearing loss are a problem. There are some of them being hired for one program and conducting another while the orchestra sticks to the original one. But since playing levels have gone up over the last half century, nobody notices.