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CD Review

The Art of Bernard Haitink

Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
1 Boston Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
2 London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
3 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
4 Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Decca 4781429 7CDs DDD/ADD
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When this 80th Anniversary tribute appeared in 2009, I doubt many of us felt that Bernard Haitink would continue to be such a prolific recording artist half a decade later. But he is, and he continues to work with the world's great orchestras, both on stage and in the studio. If he has a weakness – other than an occasionally bland interpretive stance – it is that he records the same music over and over. As time passes, it becomes harder and harder to figure out which Haitink recordings to choose, especially as reissues become cheaper and more readily available. So I thought that another perspective on this set could be useful.

Mr. Gerald Fenech said in 2009 that this "…excellently varied set enshrines the diversity and technical ability of Bernard Haitink." I have no qualms with that statement, but this box is perhaps more excellently varied than excellently chosen. The stuff with the Concertgebouw, including his very first recording with the orchestra – a fine Dvořák Seventh – is mostly worthwhile. The Schubert "Unfinished" is lovely, the Strauss and Wagner wonderfully played. Why we needed this Beethoven Seventh is unclear, and the same could be said for the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Surely, there were other recordings that deserved exposure? As for the Mahler, this 1962 effort isn't usually the critics' choice (they prefer the conductors' version from a decade later), and my overall impression is not particularly favorable either. Certainly the brass and winds are magnificent, but the end result is a touch lacking in character.

As for the rest of the set, neither piece with the London Philharmonic is anything special. The Shostakovich Tenth is not a top contender in terms of playing, excitement, or even sound. The Rite of Spring isn't bad, but it's not particularly great. Few works are farther from Haitink's rather relaxed musical personality; this is not a document I would have chosen to pay tribute to his art. The selections from Boston and Berlin aren't any better. Haitink's late-career Boston Symphony recordings don't hold a candle to his work in Amsterdam. I still believe this box is worth it for the really good stuff, but more recent projects have given a more balanced overview of a genuinely great legacy.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman