Who better to conduct Brahms in the Chamber Orchestra of Europes 30th anniversary year than Bernard Haitink? The rejuvenated conductor has a long and fruitful history with the ensemble, and his Brahms cycle has been on a tour of Europe this summer so the interpretations have had plenty of time to bed in. Not that it would take long, mind, for Haitink and the orchestra clearly enjoy their working relationship.
Brahmss Third Symphony is a tough nut to crack interpretatively, but here it was very convincingly done. The reduced forces of the chamber orchestra meant a loss of heft from the stormy rumble of the opening, but there were gains elsewhere, not least in a beautifully paced third movement, where the slightly mournful tones of Chris Parkes horn applied a truly special touch.
Haitink was the model of discretion with his conducting, supplying a remarkably steady pulse from which the musicians could draw, and his concentration on the overall sound of the orchestra reaped its rewards with clarity in the woodwind and a surprisingly fulsome string sound despite the lack of numbers.
The first movement was stately if slightly slow, while the slow movement was graceful and poised, unexpectedly harking back to Bachs Brandenburg Concertos in some of the single line woodwind dialogue. The finale, as Brahms intended, struggled to prove its worth, Haitink enjoying the contrapuntal arguments keeping the sound fresh despite his long held familiarity with the piece. The battle won, the music subsided elegantly to its restful close.
The packed arena then shifted to the left, trying to get a glimpse of Emanuel Ax, performing the First Piano Concerto in a reading that often explored its Beethovenian heritage. Again the chamber orchestra forces helped in this regard, though the first movement still crackled with atmosphere, Ax regarding the cadenzas as important structural reference points rather than a chance for virtuosic display.
Just occasionally Ax had a tendency to clump his chords together, so that some of the phrasing in the first movement was occasionally less fluid, but his sensitivity towards the orchestra when playing quietly was beyond reproach.
The centrepiece of this interpretation, however, was the slow movement and not even a fusillade of coughs could detract from the sensitivity of Ax and Haitink as they explored barely audible levels of pianissimo. The intensity of feeling experienced here was every bit as pronounced as the triumph of the rondo, its celebratory major key ringing out in considerable splendour.
Ax chose his encore very sensitively, opting for Schumanns Des Abend, the first of his Op.12 Fantasiestcke. It was a dreamy complement to the tempestuous concerto we had just encountered.