United Kingdom Brahms, Rachmaninov: Emmanuel Ax (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 18.9.2019. (CS)
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in Bb major Op.83
Rachmaninov – Symphony No.2 in E minor Op.27
In 2018, the annual Rita E. Hauser Forum for the Arts focused on the development of the concerto from Beethoven to Brahms. The Harvard Gazette subsequently reported that during the seminar, and prior to his forthcoming performance of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto in an all-Brahms programme with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Emmanuel Ax had remarked:
“Certain pieces you shouldn’t neglect — this is one of them. If I don’t play it for a year, I am never going to be able to do it again. And, of course, age has something to do with it. I think I am pretty well near the end of the Brahms B-flat.”
Well, he may be 70 years-of-age, but Ax showed no sign of lessening virtuosity or stamina during this utterly commanding performance with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, playing with relaxed authority throughout. Brahms set his soloist extreme challenges – which Ax has described as “sadistic” – but here the music unfolded naturally, almost as if improvised.
It’s easy to label this finger-twisting Concerto as ‘monumental’, even ‘bombastic’: after all, its astonishingly difficult first-movement cadenza issues a brazen challenge to the soloist almost before the player has had time to get their feet settled on the pedals. But, Ax traversed a wide emotional range, revealing both the grandeur and the gentleness. The opening exchange between the horn and piano, and the woodwinds’ response, at the start of the Allegro non troppo was quietly assured; I even felt that it might be a little too leisurely or mannered – but, in fact, the self-composed Ax was just taking care to bring the delicacy to the fore.
Elsewhere there was monumentality and strength, though Ax did not overdo the Romantic Titanism; there was no sense of a ‘battle’ between soloist and orchestra. Donald Tovey remarked that while, in a concerto, the orchestra conventionally delivered ‘with massive force what the solo player can make subtle and delicate with eloquence and ornamentation, Brahms up-ends this relationship ‘allowing the piano some grand and powerful statements where we least expect them’. Certainly, there is a sense that orchestra and soloist share equally responsibility for presenting and developing the material, though Eduard Hanslick’s description of the Concerto as a ‘symphony with piano obbligato’ is rather an overstatement.
Here Rattle drew a blended sound from the LSO – warm, animated and muscular – and allowed his principals to articulate their solos with individual inflection. In the first movement, the recapitulatory restatement by clarinets and horn of the main theme was soft and subtle, Ax issuing a shimmering cascade in reply, quiet but radiant. The Allegro appassionato, which Brahms ironically described as a ‘wisp’ of a scherzo, was anything but … though it was characterised by remarkable crystalline sonorities from Ax, and judicious pedalling. Fortissimo does not, he showed, mean lack of clarity.
Ax ‘the chamber musician’ conversed with wistfulness and intimacy with principal cellist Tim Hugh in the Andante, the latter tenderly crafting the dreamy melody which would later become the song, ‘Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer’ (1886). This movement wasn’t just a two-way discourse, though; there were sensitive contributions and countermelodies from the first violins and bassoon, with cellos and double basses providing a firm but hushed pizzicato foundation. The Allegretto grazioso frolicked insouciantly home. In answer to his own question, ‘What tremendous triumph shall it express?’, Tovey suggested that the final movement ‘says’: ‘Let the children play in the world which our work has made safer and happier for them.’ Such words seem to speak of more stable and certain times, but for a while Ax and Rattle’s fresh, spirited approach did indeed banish cares and troubles.
This performance had been unwavering collaborative and so it ended, as Ax called upon Hugh to join him in an encore: Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op.73 No.1. Rattle nestled himself into an empty chair alongside the timpanist. Who would want to miss such music-making? Next month, Ax joins the LSO on their tour of Hong Kong and China, so there’ll be no risk, for the foreseeable future, of Ax nearing ‘the end of the Brahms B-flat’.
Similarly, Rattle and the LSO have returned repeatedly to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony of late, performing the work recently at both the Edinburgh Festival and in Lucerne. The motto theme which opens the slow introduction to the first movement was dark and brooding, as Rattle focused on the strings’ interplay and textures, bringing to the fore the inner workings of the music. At times, here and elsewhere in this extensive symphony, the score of which is no longer subject to copious excisions, I wondered whether Rattle was at risk of digging down too deep and dwelling on the details of the moment at the expense of forward momentum; but by the closure of the Allegro vivace I felt that he’d got the balance about right. Melodies had space to unfold and the ebbs and flows never became stagnant. And, what impressed me most was the way Rattle produced startling contrasts but welded them into a convincing whole: the almost schizophrenic Allegro molto was a superb example of this, the transitions between the bright scherzo, the sumptuous cantabile, and the almost violent fugato always smooth and seamless.
Rattle often seemed to let the brass and woodwind players get on with things for themselves: Rachmaninov’s melodies are powerful largely because they are so simple, and ‘right’, and Rattle trusted the players to let the music speak. The eight double basses were ranged across the stage at the rear, raised imposingly above the rest of the LSO and, while this was an impressive sight, and sound, occasionally it did affect the balance between upper and lower strings, with the cellos separated by the massed fiddles from their bass partners. But, if the string playing in the Adagio was more refined than ‘velvety’, there was also great animation elsewhere: the Finale was not overly triumphal but had a fitting degree of boisterousness.
Rattle conducted Rachmaninov’s symphony without a score, every note clearly imprinted in his mind, memory and heart.