The hall was packed for the coming-together of Bernard Haitink and Emanuel Ax, two of the most seasoned maestri in the business, to deliver Brahms. But before ‘Piano Concerto No 1’, the great Dutch conductor and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe gave us Brahms’s ‘Symphony No 3’, prefaced by an illuminating programme-interview.
In it Haitink likened the old way of doing Brahms to taking a dog for a walk, and letting it stop at every tree: he preferred Brahms with precision and lightness. And that was exactly what he produced. The opening movement had a very strong through-line, with no exaggeration of the drama; the third-movement intermezzo was shot through with a regretful sweetness which the echo of peasant wind-music intensified; nobility was the keynote throughout.
Born in Poland but long resident in New York, Emanuel Ax is one of the last representatives of the great Central European piano tradition: appropriately he first came to international notice by winning the Arthur Rubinstein Comnpetition in Tel Aviv. The softly-caressing chords of his entry here had a pearlised quality, and projected marvellously round the cavernous space, but when he came to turn on the power it was with massive force. At those points where the drama lay between piano and woodwinds, he and Haitink conspired to create a circumambient stillness; this was a performance of both generosity and authority, and the ecstatic response showed how loved these two musicians are. Ax’s encore – one of Schumann’s ‘Phantasiestucke’ – had the delicate perfection of a spring flower.
An hour later we got a very different kind of Brahms, as Angela Hewitt played two of his Opus 117 Intermezzos. Where Ax’s sound was warm and intimately responsive, Hewitt’s was objective and emotionally restrained: coming from her background of Bach, she brought an analytical coolness which, though musically intelligent, allowed no hint of that submerged passion which should always be the motor for Brahms.
But what she did with Schumann’s rarely-performed ‘Introduction and Concert Allegro in D minor Op 134’ was impressive. Composed in Schumann’s last year of creativity, and dedicated to the young Brahms who had just irrupted into his life, this work is full of references to earlier ones but, with bright backing from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Manze, Hewitt proved that it should be taken seriously.