Bernard Haitink, revered conductor who had long and brilliant associations with the Concertgebouw, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden – obituary

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Bernard Haitink, who has died aged 92, was chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam for 25 years and music director of Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera; he was a consummate musician, a man of great humanity, stability and integrity whose insight into the minds of great European composers was on a par with his understanding of orchestral players.

Bernard Haitink, revered conductor who had long and brilliant associations with the Concertgebouw, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden – obituary
© OLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images Bernard Haitink in 2019 conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in London at a concert celebrating his 90th birthday – OLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

He was equally at home in the concert hall as in the opera house, though insisted that they each required a different state of mind. “I find myself very schizophrenic. When I’m in the concert hall I think ‘Why do I do all this opera business? I’m mad. This is the pure music-making.’ When I’m back in the pit, I love it. I’m so involved that I think ‘Why should I go back to the platform?’ ”

Haitink was one of the most compelling if understated of conductors. Yet he could stubborn, taciturn and even awkward. There was little negotiation, whether over the nuances of musical interpretation or the day-to-day running of an opera house or orchestra – no wonder, perhaps, that his relationship with both the Concertgebouw and the Royal Opera suffered from spectacular rifts.

Bernard Haitink, revered conductor who had long and brilliant associations with the Concertgebouw, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden – obituary
© Provided by The Telegraph Haitink c. 1965 – Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time his conducting had been regarded as staid – London orchestral players of the 1960s nicknamed him “Boring Bernard” – yet increasingly Haitink deepened and intensified his conducting, with spare, economical and coaxing gestures. In the operas of Wagner and Verdi in particular he achieved a noble grandeur and blazing magniloquence.

It helped that he was the opposite of the superstar maestro. He detested the tyrannical methods of a Toscanini and once said that Herbert von Karajan was “an enormous talent, yet he had no judgment about human beings”. His own problem, he admitted, was how to retain humanity in a job that involved giving orders: “I hate to be nasty. Of course, I shouted when I was starting out or snarled like a young dog.” Typically, he once said that he never worked on fortissimi with an orchestra: “It’s always the pianissimi I concentrate on.”

He became a specialist in British music, recording the symphonies of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and having one of his greatest successes at the Royal Opera with Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage. Nevertheless, he was sometimes criticised for his lack of interest in avant-garde music and for preferring traditional to innovative opera productions. “Producers say they have to be original and I think ‘But why?’ ” he complained.

As if to prove the point he ventured outside his comfort zone by conducting Richard Jones and Nigel Lowery’s controversial 1994 staging of the Ring Cycle for Covent Garden, the preparations for which were shown in a BBC documentary. The dismay on Haitink’s face when he was shown Lowery’s designs was palpable and was accompanied by the plaintive remark: “We can’t ignore everything the composer wanted.”

Like the pianist Alfred Brendel, Haitink was often to be seen in the audience at concerts in which he was not a participant. “I still have the naivete to admire and to wonder,” he said. “When I hear the slow movement of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and the transition to that strange finale, my heart opens. I hope that never leaves me”.

For him, music-making was a maturing process. In 1982, when he was 53, he said that he did not resent growing older. “I get a secret satisfaction from the fact that, with time, I’m acquiring more natural authority, more experience and the ability to delve deeper into works which, like all masterpieces, reveal their mysteries only very gradually, in layers, as you keep returning to them. And for that it is well worth losing one’s youth.”

Bernard Johan Herman Haitink was born in Amsterdam on March 4 1929. His father, Willem, was a railway administrator who became director of the Dutch electricity board; his half-Jewish mother, Anna, was secretary of the Alliance Française .

Young Bernard took up the violin aged nine, around the same time that he first saw Willem Mengelberg, conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra since 1895, in action. His mother’s ancestry remained undiscovered during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, but his father spent four months in a concentration camp after the protest bombing of a bookshop: he sent coded news of his survival in a letter by quoting the Prisoners’ Chorus from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio.

Bernard Haitink, revered conductor who had long and brilliant associations with the Concertgebouw, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden – obituary
© Provided by The Telegraph Rehearsing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 1972 – Donald Cooper/Alamy

After leaving school at 17, Bernard entered the Amsterdam Conservatory, where he studied conducting with Felix Hupka. He began his professional career as a violinist in the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. In 1954 and 1955 he attended the conductors’ course organised by the Netherlands Radio Union under Ferdinand Leitner, who spotted Haitink’s potential – greater, he thought, for opera than for symphonies.

His lucky break came in October 1956 when Carlo Maria Giulini cancelled an appearance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Haitink stepped in, and it led to further engagements with the Concertgebouw and other European orchestras. He made his American debut in Los Angeles in 1958 and was engaged for a five-week season with the Concertgebouw in 1958-59, touring Britain with them in 1959 and making his British debut in Huddersfield.

He was appointed joint chief conductor (with Eugen Jochum) of the Concertgebouw in 1961 and became sole chief conductor in 1964, the year in which he first conducted the Berlin Philharmonic. Some of the older Dutch players gave the 35-year-old newcomer a rough time, but the improvement in the quality of the playing was widely noticed.

In 1962 he fulfilled a guest engagement with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and, in 1967, became its principal conductor in succession to John Pritchard, taking the orchestra on overseas tours and making recordings with them, including Beethoven and Shostakovich symphonies. The partnership ended in 1979 when Haitink’s choice for filling the vacancy of principal oboist was rejected in favour of a suggestion by Georg Solti.

Bernard Haitink, revered conductor who had long and brilliant associations with the Concertgebouw, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden – obituary
© Provided by The Telegraph Rehearsing in 1970 – Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Haitink had made his debut in opera at Glyndebourne in 1972, when he conducted a series of performances of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Glyndebourne, adept at picking winners, appointed him music director to work with its director of productions, Sir Peter Hall. “He comes to the majority of stage rehearsals – which most conductors don’t,” recalled Hall approvingly.

His tenure lasted until 1987 and among the operas he conducted memorably there were Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas (Don Giovanni, Figaro, Così). It was a measure of Glyndebourne’s respect for him that although no longer music director he was invited to conduct the opening production (Figaro) in the new theatre in 1994. The lesson he learnt there was that “if it is right on stage, then you can make music in the pit.”

Despite his growing commitment to opera, Haitink maintained his love for orchestral music and continued his work with the Concertgebouw. He recorded a second cycle of Mahler symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic, and some Bruckner, in which he excelled, with the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1986 his recording of Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antartica won a Gramophone award.

However, his long association with the Concertgebouw– “it was my life, that orchestra” – ended acrimoniously in disagreements with management in 1988. He did not return to Amsterdam until 1995, when he conducted the Mahler Festival that marked the 75th anniversary of the first cycle of the composer’s symphonies given there by Mengelberg.

Bernard Haitink, revered conductor who had long and brilliant associations with the Concertgebouw, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden – obituary
© Provided by The Telegraph With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2013 – Todd Rosenberg

Meanwhile, Haitink had first conducted at Covent Garden in 1977, in Mozart. He was appointed music director in 1986 and walked straight into two crises: the soprano engaged to sing the title role in Yuri Lyubimov’s staging of Janácek’s Jenufa walked out after a row with the producer, and the Violetta in a revival of La Traviata was so unsuitable that Haitink sacked her. After the family atmosphere of Glyndebourne, Haitink found Covent Garden a trial. He did not get on with the general director Jeremy Isaacs, disliked the chairman Lord Sainsbury, and was uncomfortable with the high ticket prices.

Musically, however, he did well. Perhaps his biggest triumph was with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in 1994, directed by Graham Vick. Haitink had been worried because “they told me he was experimental. So I said to him ‘Please give me a beautiful Meistersinger’ and he did.” It corresponded with Haitink’s ideal of Vermeer, “with his translucent textures and air and clear figures”. When the Royal Opera closed for refurbishment in July 1997, Haitink chose Die Meistersinger for the final performance; the ovation he received that evening left no doubt of how the audience regarded him.

Haitink remained optimistic about the future of the Royal Opera, although he was outspoken about the failure to find a permanent home during the closure, resigning and then withdrawing his resignation. “I get upset when people say the management is so bad. That is not true. It is the result of having a non-professional board who think they should be in charge. That is extremely dangerous.” Nevertheless, he remained with the company until 2002.

Across the Atlantic, in 1996 Haitink was appointed principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Although he had not enjoyed conducting opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (“like a factory”), he loved Boston and the players and the audiences loved him.

Asked many years ago where he belonged, Haitink replied: “I want to be buried in Holland.” But later he felt that his roots were in England. “I have changed,” he said in 1995, adding that he had taken to reading Jane Austen. “I love the English mentality. I feel much more at home than in my own country. Even if I did not work here, I would still live here”.

In his last two decades Haitink demonstrated that his thoughts about music were penetrating and profound. A tendency to understatement in his earlier years was now replaced by wisdom and incandescence. As he approached his tenth decade a Haitink appearance – notably at the Barbican with the LSO or in Royal Albert Hall at the Proms, where he appeared almost annually in the first two decades of the 21st century – came with the sense of being in the presence of a living legend.

Bernard Haitink, who was appointed honorary KBE in 1977 and honorary CH in 2002, told his life story to Simon Mundy in Bernard Haitink: A Working Life, published in 1987. He was married four times, latterly to Patricia Bloomfield, a barrister and former viola player at Covent Garden. He had two sons and three daughters from his first marriage.

Bernard Haitink, born March 4 1929, died October 21 2021

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