on 18 February 2014
I have not had the chance to listen to all 36 CDs as yet, but having heard all the Bruckner Symphonies, the Beethoven Symphonies (not the Choral so far) and Tchaikovsky Pathetique, I can only say this is a magnificent set of clear recordings with dramatic and sensitive conducting. I look forward to hearing the Mahler, Brahms and Schumann offerings. The recordings cover a period of thirty years, from the early sixties to the late eighties. Many recordings are ADD but the later ones are DDD. I really cannot tell the difference in sound quality. Haitink and the RCO really have made a an outstanding contribution to recording history and the whole set for £50 is outstanding value. Haitink is clearly a master conducter who knows how to bring the best out every instrument under his direction. This is a must have set even if you own complete recordings of symphonies such as Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler etc. conducted by Karajan, Kubelik and Bernstein or Stokowski.
Question: why has Bernard Haitink - at least on record - had so little to do with the symphonies of Mozart and Sibelius? He's found time for Shostakovich and Walton, so why not Finland's finest, or Salzburg's? Let's leave that one hanging.
The reissue of Haitink's Royal Concertgebouw symphonies cycles (1960s-80s) comes in a robust box with a lift-off lid, cardboard sleeves well proportioned, the exterior predominantly grey, the interior box lemon yellow. The booklet, with alphabetical and disc-by-disc tracklistings, reproduces essays printed when Philips reissued these recordings in the early 1990s. I can recall The Gramophone expressing some regret that Haitink's later re-recordings of certain pieces weren't chosen in place of his younger efforts (e.g. Mahler's No.1 - a likeable performance, nonetheless) and the same concern applies here. Reissuing the sets as they were, Decca do not take the opportunity of including Das Klagende Lied or Das Lied Von Der Erde, which would make sense under the circumstances and add value. In an era of 'original jacket' reproductions on CD sleeves, a different basic colour to demarcate each composer's discs would have been helpful.
The box is worth getting for a superb, comprehensive Brahms series and an outstanding Bruckner cycle. I've also encountered a lovely Mahler 4 with Elly Ameling and a stirring Manfred overture. Schumann's symphonies are given serviceable readings and the various short pieces are a pleasure to hear. Though some of the music in this box was recorded in the 1960s, Haitink's Beethoven cycle didn't arrive till the mid 1980s and the many beauties (No.8, for example) are ripe for rediscovery. I don't suppose the Mahler set ever dropped out of the catalogue once it was remastered: BH's interpetation of the Ninth is much admired so it won't surely surprise you to hear that he's equally in tune with the final symphony of Tchaikovsky.
To date, the great hall of the Concertgebouw is the best concert acoustic I have encountered in situ. When you add the quality of the orchestra, the excellent sound goes a long way to compensating on those occasions when BH keeps his feet too firmly on the ground, isn't 'sent' by the music (e.g. the more spectacular Mahler or Tchaikovsky pieces). Sample the woodwinds flitting along with Byron's Alpine Fairy, or the thrilling orchestral dynamics brought to bear on Pyotr Ilyich's 'Pathetique' vivace. The worst you can expect is some very faint hiss in the earliest recorded offerings (maybe some noises-off on the much recommended Mahler 9).
A very handsome tribute to a great conductor and there's plenty more live material out there to explore. Recent live concerts recorded for CSO Resound, Profil, BR Klassik, LSO Live. Other golden oldies are reappearing on Decca Eloquence. A rich harvest.