BBC Proms reviews

Prom 49: Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Haitink @ Royal Albert Hall, London

20 August 2011

This was the second of two all-Brahms programmes given by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the experienced baton of Bernard Haitink, with pianist Emmanuel Ax. Friday night saw them deliver a glowing account of the composers 3rd Symphony and his 1st Piano Concerto whilst at this second Prom it was the turn of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major and the mighty Symphony No.4 in E minor.

Emmanuel Ax was as attentive a soloist as one could hope for his playing was by turns vigorous, reflective and throughout finely nuanced to all Brahms shifts of mood and caught the light and shade of the work perfectly. What impressed the most was the way he, Haitink and all the sections of the orchestra worked together in perfect harmony. Sometimes theres a feeling when listening to this work that theres a battle ensuing between conductor and soloist, yet here everyone breathed as one, with genuine rapport between conductor, soloist and orchestra. The overall result was thrilling, with Ax not afraid to exploit the full dynamic contrasts that Brahms requires.

The joy of hearing Brahms played by a chamber-sized orchestra became even greater after the interval when Haitink conducted as fine a performance of the 4th Symphony as its been my pleasure to hear. Having appeared frail the last time I saw him just over a year ago, here he seemed revitalised only needing to rest between movements and otherwise directing a spine-tingling account of this towering symphonic work. Although an extravagant admirer of this conductors interpretations of Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, Id often considered his performances of Brahms works to be too overblown, but that notion was completely refuted with this sprightly account of the 4th Symphony that in many ways reminded me of the exemplary performance that the late Sir Charles Mackerras committed to disc with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Textures were clear, the strings never cloying, tempi were perfectly judged and given that there were far fewer string players than would normally expect in this symphony (there were only 12 first violins), it was like listening to the work afresh. Fewer strings meant that the woodwind really shone, and there was some breathtaking playing from Ingrid Geerlings (flute), Kai Fromgen (oboe) and Romain Guyot (clarinet) whilst Chris Parkes (horn) really made his mark in the second movement.

Tempi were perfectly judged, the scherzo in particular had a visceral thrill to it, and Haitink lent the final movement colossal guts and drive. Not surprisingly he looked tired at the close, but he set the seal on an evening of music-making of the highest order which will certainly be remembered as one of the highlights of this years Proms no mean feat given that its proving to be a vintage season.

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