General Excellence from Haitink, Ax and the London Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Beethoven: Emanuel Ax (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 10.7.2017. (GD)

Brahms – Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90

Beethoven – Piano Concerto in E-flat, Op.73 ‘Emperor’

Donald Tovey stated that Brahms’s Third Symphony was ‘by far the most difficult’ of his four symphonies in matters of rhythm, phrasing, and tone. Tovey has proved to be right, as so many ‘great’ Brahms conductors have found the symphony particularly difficult. Perhaps the clearest example here was Toscanini. Although he conducted it on numerous occasions, he could never get certain phrases, transitions, contrasts absolutely right. He came nearest to his idea of perfection in 1952 in London, with Walter Legge’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Tovey’s ‘matters of rhythm, phrasing’ are easy to discern and analyse (with help of a score), but what did he mean by ‘tone’? I would guess here that he meant the achievement of a rich, versatile warmth and glow. He talks several times Brahms’s ‘romantic depth’. Tonight, any note of ‘depth’, ‘romantic glow’ was partially compromised by the Barbican’s rather restricted acoustic. Haitink opened the symphony with full throated horns and woodwind for the heroic theme that will come to dominate the first movement. But was Haitink’s initial tempo really Allegro con brio? It sounded more like a broadly paced Andante which didn’t suit Brahms’s sense of sonorous forward drive. In the A minor second subject Haitink allowed plenty of space for some nice woodwind playing. But in the initial development, with dramatic juxtapositions between major and minor, I heard none of the necessary – and splendid – thrust especially in the cellos and basses. The dramatic coda, with its transformation of the opening motto theme in quasi canonic form sounded merely loud. The two middle movements went quite well, especially the Andante with its initially relaxed pastoral tone, which was well paced. The dark minor key middle section, which anticipates the dramatic development section of the last movement, had the right tone of serious introspection. The lyrical Poco Allegretto in C minor was nicely phrased, if a little too subdued, I missed here the charm and ‘glow’ of the wonderful old Clemens Krauss recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. There was horn fluff at the return of the main theme after the brief A flat trio, which stuck out like a proverbial sore thumb!

The dramatic Allegro finale, which draws all the threads of the symphony together, mostly went quite well, although I felt that the stormiest sequence of the development section, which recasts the middle section of the second movement, mentioned above, didn’t really emerge from within the inner structure of the movement (so clearly defined by Klemperer), it sounded more laid on from without. The beautifully quiet and lyrical coda, which magically quotes the symphonies opening theme, had just the right tone of reflective calm.

Haitink wisely deployed antiphonal violins throughout the concert (absolutely essential, especially in the first movement’s quite complex cross-rhythms). And he observed the now obligatory first movement repeat.

Both soloist and conductor were in illuminating accord in the majestic opening chords and pianist flourishes of the so called ‘Emperor’ Concerto. Ax gave a splendid rendition of the whole concerto, as though he saw the concerto’s closing bars in those opening chords – very much in the tradition of the great European pianists; Schnabel, Kempff, Fischer, Casadesus, Serkin and Horowitz, to name just a few. Ax played with total confidence the ‘still’ difficult exposition with its virtuoso figurations and modulated harmonies; also a constellation of shifting harmonies around B major, towards the movement’s triumphant coda. The beautiful B major second movement found soloist and conductor in total harmony, Ax bringing a pianistic translucence anticipating the Nocturnes of Chopin. Throughout this movement Haitink achieved a wonderful sotto voce with muted strings and beautiful cantabile woodwinds.

The E flat rondo finale was inflected with a revealing contrast between soloist and conductor, whilst also maintaining a consistent and trenchant sense of dialogue. Ax played the cadenza with a delicacy of tone which contrasted well with its more bravura sequences. The important timpani rhythm preceding the coda (missed in many performances) was captured well with what looked like hard sticks. Although throughout I found the timpani a tad thumpy, too loud, and needing more dynamic variation. But this seems like a mere quibble in relation to the general excellence of the performance and all concerned. A first rate ‘Emperor’.

Geoff Diggines

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