Music review

Bernard Haitink leads BSO in an evening of contrasts

Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform Haydn’s Symphony No. 60.
Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform Haydn’s Symphony No. 60.(Robert Torres)

Boston Symphony Orchestra fans looking for a contrast to the ebullient and extroverted style of music director Andris Nelsons need look no further than this week’s Bernard Haitink-helmed program. A perennial BSO guest with the title of conductor emeritus, Haitink has led a conducting career of more than 60 years, and Thursday night, his manner was deliberate and subtle, with no gesture wasted as he let the music speak for itself.

The evening’s first piece, Haydn’s Symphony No. 60, “Il distratto,” would have benefited from a touch more intentional drama. This week marks the BSO’s first performance of the piece in decades, and the score is packed full of Haydn’s signature musical pranks, such as blustery horn fanfares interrupting lilting folky melodies. Most famously, the music comes to a complete stop seconds into the finale so the violins can retune their lowest string from F to the normal G.


The orchestra was in fine form, especially in the sweetly melancholic fifth-movement Adagio, and the string-quartet style seating arrangement, with violas to the conductor’s right on the outside, made for a pleasing concentrated sound. Unfortunately, the jokes were largely bypassed, given little contrast with the music surrounding them. In particular, the retuning was kept almost exactly in time with the rest of the piece. Subtle wasn’t the most rewarding approach in this case.

However, subtlety was exactly what Debussy’s “Nocturnes” needed to envelop the audience in mottled bliss. The first movement, “Nuages” (Clouds), channeled the colors of twilight fog, with a solo English horn evoking the mournful call of a slowly paddling bird. “Fêtes” (Festivals) was a glorious, outsized riot of color, with threads of melody jumping out of the texture and fading back in. A merry march struck up, with remarkable dynamic control in the trumpets making the music seem to echo from far away before the full force of the orchestra joined in. At the finish, it faded out in volume but not vigor, as a child being carried off to bed before the party ends might hear as she slips into sleep. “Sirènes” saw the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus singing an undulating wordless melody beneath a transparent layer of rippling violins and ethereal harp accents.


Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 is an adrenaline rush, with no slow movement to cut the momentum. Haitink’s conducting was as unfussy as it had been all night, but unlike at the beginning, the contrasts within the music were dialed all the way up. Energy coursed through the infectious tripping dance that makes up the first movement, which was punctuated by crackling silences. Strong accents propelled the second-movement Allegretto’s earworm theme as it deepened, gathering in instruments. The mercurial third movement scherzo swerved through keys and moods as easily as blinking, and the droning strings in the sparser trio section highlighted a thrilling suspension of harmonic activity. Though a score was on the podium in front of the conductor, he barely touched it, at home as he was in the music. He led the headlong hurtle into the finale with luminous confidence, standing unperturbed in the eye of a cyclone of sound, which continued after the music was over for three ovations.


At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Saturday and Tuesday). 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.