Haitink Leads the BSO in Mahler's "Titan" | CRB

Haitink Leads the BSO in Mahler's "Titan"

Saturday, February 20, 2021
8:00 PM

Bernard Haitink leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's colossal Symphony No. 1, and Murray Perahia is the soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.

Bernard Haitink, conductor
Murray Perahia, piano

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4
MAHLER Symphony No. 1

This concert is no longer available on-demand.

In an interview with WCRB's Brian McCreath, Bernard Haitink describes his long experience with Mahler, his 45-year (at the time of the interview) relationship with the BSO, and the first time he heard the BSO in person:


Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath, and I'm at Symphony Hall with Bernard Haitink, who is back with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, now celebrating 45 years of association with this orchestra. Mr. Haitink, thank you so much for spending a little bit of your time this afternoon with me.

I understand that your debut with the BSO was in 1971. And so we'll talk about that a little bit. I'm interested in your memories from that time. But first, let's talk a little bit about this week's program. You've told me before on a couple of occasions that your preference is to have programs requested. In other words, you don't come in with a lot of particular ideas, but you work so closely with Tony [Fogg, the BSO's Artistic Administrator] that he usually has ideas for you. Is that how this program came together?

Bernard Haitink [00:00:46] Well, I'm a sort of trooper, yes. Because I know, as a guest conductor, you have to fit in and the whole idea of the whole program. And it is very dangerous to come every time with the pieces you want to do. It is a give and take situation. But I'm incredibly happy that you have such a good contact as Tony Fogg, who has a wonderful knowledge of the repertoire.

BMcC [00:01:24] The two pieces that are on the program for this week, I'll just tell you personally, your recordings of them have been reference recordings for me, your recording with Murray Perahia of the Fourth Concerto by Beethoven and your recording of Mahler's First with the Concertgebouw. That was the first Mahler recording that really grabbed me and wouldn't let go.

BH [00:01:45] Well, I'm very bad in that respect. I don't like to listen to my recordings. I stole that from Carlo Maria Giulini, who said, "I don't want to listen to my recordings because I can't learn from it." Well, that is debatable, because when you're not happy with the recording, or with certain aspects of the recording, then, of course, you can try to do it better. But yes, I have made many recordings, and once in a while, I listen and sometimes, I come across strange surprises that I hear on recordings, which I thought, "My memory is not good. That's a little bit better than I thought." These things happen. But how important recordings are? It is a frozen musical activity.

BMcC [00:02:52] Right. And one of the things that you told me when you conducted Mahler's Fourth Symphony a few years ago was that when you did those recordings with the Concertgebouw, they had initially asked you to, I think, record all the Mahler symphonies in just a couple of years. And you were the one who said, "No, really, I need to take a little bit more time than that to to really get my head, you know, wrapped around those pieces." So how did that happen, though? How did you ... were there recordings or were there conductors that you went to for advice or feedback? How did you approach learning these symphonies as you recorded them with the Concertgebouw?

BH [00:03:32] Well, after my predecessor [Eduard] von Beinum died, at that time, orchestras, especially Amsterdam, had a big contract with Philips. So they had to go on. And then one of the managers, and maybe not that musical, but [a] businessman, said, "Well, we must have all the Mahler symphonies in two years." I said, "That's crazy, I only can do one piece a year. And that's how it is." And it took 10 years. So, I'm glad that I said no.

BMcC [00:04:15] Yeah, certainly, certainly. And were there interpreters of Mahler at the time to whom you would look for guidance in tackling these pieces? Or, you know, I also remember you telling me that Mahler, because he was a conductor, his scores are very explicit about what he wants. And so maybe there wasn't the need so much for a mentor or anything like that for you.

BH [00:04:37] Mahler must have been a wonderful conductor. And you can still see that in the scores. He makes all sorts of remarks that only a conductor could make. But yes, of course, I listened to recordings. I listened to Bruno Walter, who had this Mahler tradition. And yeah, how do these things go? One goes into it, one tries, and hopefully one succeeds. I tried to follow the instructions [from] Mahler. Sounds a bit down to earth, but there's more to that, of course.

[00:05:23] But one should not exaggerate things when they are not there. That I have learned through the years. Well, it is a long process, how an orchestra responds to a conductor and how this conductor responds to the orchestra, et cetera, et cetera. It's very complicated.

BMcC [00:05:48] Well, it is complicated. And you've had this wonderful four-and-a-half decade association now [with the BSO]. So in 1971, had you heard the Boston Symphony before in person?

BH [00:05:59] Oh, yes. Only a few times. That was when I lived in Amsterdam. I was a student. And then after the Second World War, after the liberation, the BSO came with [conductor and former BSO Music Director Pierre] Monteux. I will never forget this concert, and I was very impressed with him, and with the orchestra. No showmanship, what one at that time thought of American orchestras. Maybe also because, just before, Leopold Stokowski came with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. And did a very eccentric Beethoven. And then came Monteux with the BSO, did Ravel... Wonderful.

BMcC [00:06:54] Oh, I can imagine. That must have been when you were very young, and still learning how orchestras sounded and how different conductors put things together. Were you already playing violin in the orchestra by that point?

BH [00:07:09] Not in the Amsterdam orchestra. I was, for two years, I played in the Radio Philharmonic. That was done because they thought I was a product of the Dutch radio conductors course. I did it two times. And then they said, "Well, the boy has talent, but he must sit in an orchestra." So I had my little audition, which was not great. But I was allowed to play in the orchestra. And I learned a lot from that.

BMcC [00:07:47] Yeah. When you came here in 1971, part of your program was [Maurice Ravel's ballet] Mother Goose, the complete Mother Goose. And I wonder if you remember, did the shadow of that first exposure to the BSO sort of hang over you as you were stepping into Symphony Hall to conduct Ravel, just as you had heard Monteux conduct Ravel in Amsterdam? What was that like?

BH [00:08:13] Well, as I said, the BSO [has an enormous reputation]. And especially with French music. I remember that the first time here, for me, I was a bit nervous about rehearsal time, and I asked, can I really get through it? Can I rehearse it (because it's difficult)? But the orchestra played it as if they play it every day. It was this tradition. When I came in '71 as a guest, there were still players from the time of Charles Munch.

BMcC [00:08:50] Well, and you've had associations with major orchestras here in this country and in Europe that include the Chicago Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic and, of course, your years with the Concertgebouw. Has the BSO maintained more of that individual character more than any of those other orchestras?

BH [00:09:09] I think so. And the orchestra, of course, one fantastic thing is they play in this hall, which is a wonderful hall, and automatically an orchestra adapts and gets the sound from the hall. There's an interplay, I would say. The other thing is that, after all these years, I see again the same people. And that makes an orchestra ... The tradition, how to play together.

BMcC [00:09:53] You became the Principal Guest Conductor in 1995, I think it was. And, tell me about how that role, what the role meant to you. What did you hope that would turn out to be as Principal Guest of the Boston Symphony?

BH [00:10:11] Well, what does it mean? I came quite regularly to Boston. And this title was bestowed on me and I found it extremely nice gesture. But it didn't make for me any difference. Yes, of course, normally a guest conductor doesn't go on tour with the orchestra. But Ozawa [was] not well. In any case I had the tour, European tour with the orchestra. I've forgotten which year. But that was an important thing for me. I got quite close to the orchestra. I'm very fond of them.

BMcC [00:11:05] Yeah, yeah. A quick question about Murray Perahia and your association with him. That must go back quite a long way as well. And I wonder, what are the qualities that you really value in Murray Perahia's playing when you collaborate with him?

BH [00:11:20] Well, Murray is a great musician. And I really mean that. He's a great musician, and he has a very good intellect, but he will never let that interrupt his idea of music. And he is a wonderful player. What can I say?

BMcC [00:11:48] Yeah, well, he is. As I said, your recording of the Beethoven with him was the first of those concertos that I got to know through that recording.

BH [00:11:58] Well, that's a very old recording, very a long time ago. So I don't have to listen to it, but it was around quite, quite a long time. Yeah, yeah.

BMcC [00:12:09] Well, congratulations on 45 years with the Boston Symphony, and thank you again for spending a little bit of time talking with me about it today.

BH [00:12:17] Could have been worse.

BMcC [00:12:17] [laughs]