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 Obituary, Bernard Haitink (1929-2021)

Bernard HaitinkThe great Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, widely loved for his kindness and humility as well as his revelatory interpretations of Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, has died aged 92.

Born in Amsterdam in 1929, Haitink trained at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and began his career as an orchestral violinist before studying conducting with Ferdinand Leitner in his mid-twenties; he made his conducting debut with the Netherlands Radio Union Orchestra (subsequently the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic) in July 1954, and his first appearance with the Concertgebouworkest two years later. He went on to serve as their Chief Conductor for twenty-seven years, and despite friction with management regarding budget-cuts over the decades maintained a close relationship with the orchestra for the rest of his life, conducting his final concerts with them in 2019.

Haitink’s 65-year career also included musical directorships at Glyndebourne (1978-88) and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (1987-2002), and long-term relationships with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was also a regular and much-loved guest-conductor with orchestras including the Wiener Philharmoniker, Berliner Philharmoniker and London Symphony Orchestra; his live recordings with the latter (which contributed greatly to the early success of the orchestra’s own label) included superb sets of the complete Beethoven and Brahms symphonies and a peerless account of Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie which my colleague James recently selected as one of the great recordings of the 2000s.

A gentle, unassuming and courteous man, Haitink achieved miraculous results from orchestras and singers with a remarkable economy of gesture, never seeking to impose his own ego on the music and communicating his ideas largely through eye-contact rather than ostentatious physicality. Although he conducted a wide range of repertoire with great success over the course of his long career, he excelled above all in the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner, with highlights from his vast discography (running to over 450 recordings) including a wonderfully humane Meistersinger from Glyndebourne (1997), a profound and poignant Das Lied von der Erde with Dame Janet Baker and James King (1975), and a raft of magisterial Bruckner symphonies with the Concertgebouworkest, London Symphony Orchestra and most recently the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.

Haitink began to scale back his opera work in the mid-2000s, but maintained a busy schedule of orchestral engagements until the age of 90; his final concert (Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Emanuel Ax and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7) took place in Lucerne with the Wiener Philharmoniker in September 2019, following farewell performances of the Bruckner at the BBC Proms a few days previously and with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic earlier that summer. He continued to attend concerts in London until the final weeks of his life, turning up to support his former Concertgebouw colleagues in a lunchtime concert at Wigmore Hall last month and to enjoy a lieder recital at the same venue by Christian Gerhaher (an artist whose self-effacing approach to music-making surely resonated with his own) a few days later.

Haitink died peacefully at home in London yesterday, and is survived by his fourth wife Patricia Bloomfield, a former Covent Garden viola-player whom he married in 1994. Paavo Järvi, Sarah Willis, Renaud Capuçon, Steven Isserlis and Karita Mattila were among the musicians who paid heartfelt tribute to his artistry on social media today, whilst The Royal Opera House Covent Garden released a statement declaring that ‘his exceptional musicianship, quiet authority and profound care and respect for his fellow artists inspired and moved beyond words.’

Tributes from the Presto Team

Paul Thomas: 'Although I was fortunate to see Haitink conduct many times, I’ll always most strongly associate him with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, a piece I saw him conduct twice – firstly in 2004 at my first visit to the BBC Proms, and secondly two years ago at Haitink’s final visit to the Royal Albert Hall. Magisterially conducted on both occasions, it was a piece that perfectly suited this deeply humane and humble musician.'

Bernard Haitink - Ten Great Recordings

John Tomlinson (Hans Sachs), Gösta Winbergh (Walther von Stolzing), Thomas Allen (Beckmesser), Nancy Gustafson (Eva), Gwynne Howell (Pogner), Herbert Lippert (David), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Magdalena)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Bernard Haitink

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

and Triple Concerto

Twyla Robinson (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo), John MacMaster (tenor), Gerald Finley (bass), Gordan Nikolitch (violin), Tim Hugh (cello) & Lars Vogt (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Bernard Haitink

Available Formats: 6 SACDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Thomas Allen (Don Giovanni), Carol Vaness (Donna Anna), Maria Ewing (Donna Elvira), Elizabeth Gale (Zerlina), Keith Lewis (Don Ottavio), Richard van Allan (Leporello), John Rawnsley (Masetto), Dimitri Kavrakos (Il Commendatore)

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus, Bernard Haitink

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

Gerhild Romberger (contralto), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Frauenchor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Augsburger Domsingknaben, Bernard Haitink

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Janet Baker (mezzo), James King (tenor), Concertgebouworkest, Bernard Haitink

Available Formats: Presto CD, MP3, FLAC

London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Concertgebouworkest, Bernard Haitink

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC

The Firebird - Petroushka - The Rite of Spring

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

(London Symphony Orchestra, Igor Markevitch - Apollon musagète)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Haitink

Available Format: 7 CDs

Emanuel Ax (piano), Wiener Philharmoniker, Bernard Haitink

Also available on Blu-ray.

Available Format: DVD Video