Sunday 21 August 2011

Proms week 5 - Brahmsfest

These were surely some of the must sees of the season. A pair of Proms continuing the Brahms concerto theme brought together Bernard Haitink and pianist Emanuel Ax to give the piano concertos over two evenings. With them were Brahms's last symphonies, set against the piano concerto most opposed to their character. Prom 47 (Haitink/COE/Ax - Brahms - August 19th) contrasted the fitfully sunny Third Symphony with the First Piano Concerto, actually his first concerto in any form.

I've found Haitink's direction a little calculated in the past; he's the master of classical shape and tasteful proportion, but not your go to man for searing passion and wild abandon. Thankfully, his sober manner was allied with the big tone and heart from the relitively small Chamber Orchestra of Europe, finding a way in the first movement of the symphony that remained clearly focused while recognising the unparalleled joie de vive of the music. The second movement was as delicate and beautifully textured as you could wish, though the allegretto sounded a little disctracted, as though Haitink wanted to avoid the spirit of yearning and anguish that often marks this wonderful movement.

Emanuel Ax might not be everyone's first choice of pianist in Brahms's titanic concertos, though that's as much to do with his relativley low profile on this side of the Atlantic as anything. In the First Concerto, though, he found the turmoil and deep seriousness of the work without having to exagerate, suggesting an interpretation borne out of hard won wisdom. The Second Concerto, beginning Prom 49 (August 20th) was, if anything, even better, and I urge you to catch it on BBC iplayer if you can (UK readers only).

Haitink's Brahms 4 exemplified his approach in a performance that said more about what the symphony had drawn from the past than what it said to the future. It had to be the least surging opening to the symphony that I've ever hear, recalling Mozart's 40th as much as anything and the point was driven home by the COE's minimal vibrato and small size. But this didn't mean a dull ride. The scherzo dashed forwards and the performance peaked, as it should, in the great final movement. Some decry Haitink's classicising approach, but it's genuninley unique and I think there's room in the world for a view of these works that places them in the tradition that Brahms was conciously emulating.

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