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Proms 47 and 49: COE/Haitink

08.21.11
Emanuel Ax
The Guardian (UK)

By Andrew Clements

In the programme notes for his two concerts with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink categorised Brahms as "a composer who thinks with his heart and feels with his brain". It's a marvellous description, and one that could be applied just as tellingly not only to Haitink's own conducting but to Emanuel Ax's piano playing. Ax joined Haitink and the COE for both of their all-Brahms programmes, pairing two of the symphonies, the third and fourth, with the two piano concertos.

This was wonderfully mature Brahms, humane and intensely musical, the product of a genuine meeting of interpretative minds. Ax is the antithesis of the self-regarding, attention-seeking soloist. Even in such huge works as these concertos, his playing had a pearly, chamber-music quality, not just in the slow movements – the Adagio of the first looking towards the introspection of Brahms's late piano pieces, the Andante of the second a rapt dialogue with the COE's principal cellist – but in the more robust exchanges of the outer movements where everyone listened to everyone else, with Haitink presiding over it all with his usual authority.

There were moments, in the first concerto particularly, that could have been more extreme – a more starkly tragic first movement, more exuberance in the finale – just as there were passages in the two symphonies that could have been underlined more heavily, like the F minor angst of the opening of the Third. But working with forces this size allowed Haitink to create moments of extraordinary refinement and transparency, whether in the Third's intermezzo or its closing pages, or the flute solo in the finale of the Fourth, delivered, typically, without a hint of superfluous pathos.