Reviewed: 20 August, 2011 Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This second BBC Prom of Brahms with Emanuel Ax and Bernard Haitink, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, opened with a well-orchestrated chant from some in the Arena: “From Arena to Audience: No coughing, please!”. Shouldn’t need to be said, but it was well said, and expertly ‘orchestrated’ by a well-known recording executive (in civvies, so name withheld), the appeal seemed to work, save for someone’s big hack on the third note of the concerto’s opening horn-call, mellifluously sounded by Chris Parkes. Ax rolled out the riposting cadenza in a manner that held good for the rest of this absorbing performance, richly moulded, poised, patricianly phrased and dynamically peaking to exactly the right place. Such discrimination was complemented by Haitink and the COE musicians, mutual respect and a give-and-take that worked many musical wonders. Although Ax’s fortissimos could be manly and imposing he was never bossy or attention-seeking; and at other times he conjured marshmallowy textures, his caressing of the piano’s keys and his lightness of touch a constant pleasure, and so sensitive when the opening music magically returns later in the first movement. Plenty of passion and yielding romanticism informed the second-movement scherzo, and William Conway offered plaintive cello solos in the Andante (thanks to Haitink’s antiphonal violins the cellist was neighbouring the pianist, just the duo-arrangement that Brahms intended); many confidences were shared and reached a degree of introspection that sucked the audience in. The Hungarian finale was a joy, the tempo relaxed, the playing from all a model of unforced enjoyment. To finalise things there was an orchestral chord glowing and rasping. No encore this time from Ax, but none was needed; it had all been said in the concerto.
After the interval a Brahms 4 to rival the greatest single performance that I have heard of it (thus far) in the concert hall, from Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia Orchestra, which was fabulously played and mesmeric in its logic. Haitink’s lean-sounding, shapely COE account was equally trusting of Brahms’s symphonic sureness, always certain of direction in a leisurely but not-lingering first movement, which was gently refrained and gradually propelled to the coda’s grief-laden outpouring. The second movement was on the moderate side of Andante, as Brahms directs, and was perfectly paced, burgeoning to a tension-releasing outburst and to the most-glorious of reconciliations. The scherzo went as fast as it can (should) go (although Vladimir Jurowski would disagree), exuberant and neatly turned. The passacaglia finale, the summation of Brahms’s symphonism, left in no doubt of the composer’s stoical if despondent resolution, with the flute Variation en route (seductively played by Ingrid Geerlings) not segregated from its surrounds, typical of Haitink’s wholeness of vision and his fidelity to the composer.
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