I am deliberately restricting this review to head to head comparisons with Karajan/BPO from 1980 on DG, as with this Haitink analogue, and the excellent digital Sawallisch/Bavarian SO from 1982 on Orfeo. These comments are also restricted to the first movement of Bruckner's No 6.
The Haitink performance and the recording though dating somewhat earlier from 1970 are truely magnificent. Philips as a classical label were on top form in the 1960s. The Concertgebouw then, possibly more so then, was among the top three symphony orchestras in the world. The strings are superior across the board to both the playing of the Bavarians and Berliners. While the instrumentals, in the winds and brass are also confident and precise. Haitink and his players have the measure of this music and its grand architecture. As it unfolds across this vast movement, the rise and fall, both in volume and emotionally, is superbly shaped and controlled by Haitink. There is a feeling of unstoppable drive and energy in the music, simply absent from other accounts, and towards the end a great note of inevitability in the conclusion which because it is missing elsewhere robs the competition of complete satisfaction.
Haitink knows what this music is all about, his players likewise, and they know how to deliver it superbly.
But what use is that without a recording team equal to the performance? Luckily, on this occasion at least, Philips had such a team. A side note on this is that this record comes from the era, the late 60s of the great independent classical labels: Decca, fuelled by its easy listening Mantovani and Rolling Stone receipts; DG the cultural arm of Siemens industrial; likewise Philips a division of the world's largest electronics corporation. A side note also that this recording is probably wholly valve based (Philips being the major developer of valve technology in Europe since the 1930s) which accounts for the characteristic warmth of the sound which even digital remastering for CD can't disguise.
Within less than ten years of the recording date of 1969 all that would change. DG and Philips would merge into Polydor. Vinyl as a quality product would start to erode as MBAs and accountants took full control. Transistors replaced valves facilitating a more complex audio recording process.
So the Haitink is a relic. But it works BECAUSE of that:
1. The incomparable Concertgebouw concert hall acoustic adds to the music
2. Philips provides a suitably wide soundstage, a simple but effective old school arrangement of left, centre and right which is rock steady throughout, whereas the Karajan in particular is congested and suffers from over-miking and a far too close up aural picture
3. The overall sound quality captured by Philips is superior and more even across different sections of the orchestra
4. Because the soundstage is set back by the ideal 10 rows as you would in the sweet spot of a live concert, Philips literally gives you the best seat in the house - the "house" being the Concertgebouw! Therefore the orchestral sound is beautifully cohesive.
In life generally I have no time for the "good old days". They never existed. But in the classical recording industry: from then, published in 1970, to what we have today, there is some element of truth in the saying.
Certainly this Bruckner 6 from Haitink and Amsterdam is an excellent example of that.
It is thrilling.