With astute planning, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra programmed a mini festival over a ten day period centred on the Beethoven piano concertos. All five concertos are to be performed by Emanuel Ax and the SSO in three concerts; each of them will be repeated at least twice. Such cyclical performances (be it Wagner’s Ring, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier or, in this case, the Beethoven piano concertos) are always welcomed by the audience as a chance to inspect and admire a composer’s output in any given genre, and perhaps even more so by the performers: the cycle presents an exceptional artistic summit to conquer, a challenge wrapped neatly into musical (self) evaluation.

Friday’s concert included the first two concertos but began with an unusually orchestrated Hindemith work; seldom played, though well worth hearing: the Concert Music for brass and strings, op.50. In the 20th century, composers often experimented with new acoustical possibilities by adding uncommon instruments to the traditional symphonic orchestra. Hindemith did quite the opposite in this work with equally stunning effect: he removed two main instrumental groups completely, the woodwinds and the percussion. In their absence the contrasts in character and tone colour between strings and brass become considerably sharper, the right balance in volume harder to achieve. In this performance, the twelve solo brass players of the SSO excelled in the stentorian fanfares with virtuosic, chiselled playing but found it harder to mix a delicate tone when they provided accompaniment to the strings, particularly in their gentler, melodious passages. The balance became particularly problematic towards the climactic ending of the second movement when the pitch and sound of close to 50 string players was whitewashed by the otherwise splendid brass ensemble. However, there was much to relish in the extended string unison passages of the first movement which sounded both convinced and convincing. The strings were the protagonists also in the technically challenging fast fugato of the second movement; it felt solid and safe throughout, if lacking somewhat in the clarity of articulation.

The survey of the Beethoven piano concertos started appropriately with the B flat major Concerto, op.19, labelled no.2 but in actual fact written several years before the so-called no.1 in C major Op.15. (The confusion is understandable: both works went through several revisions by the composer and in the end, the earlier work, Op.19, was published later.) Although Beethoven self-deprecatingly commented about both of them as “not one of my best compositions”, they are representative masterpieces of the last decade of the 18th century, while at the same time building a bridge in so many ways towards the 19th. Their musical world is perhaps stylistically closer to Mozartian traditions than to the highly individual language of the late Beethoven works.

Emanuel Ax, a regular visitor to Australian concert halls, was greeted with obvious joy by orchestra, conductor and audience alike. He, in turn, rewarded all with his humble but focused artistry. His pure, almost childlike pleasure in playing the concertos was obvious right from the first entry. These are demanding, virtuosic concertos; after all, the young Beethoven wrote them for himself, to advance his career in Vienna, his newly chosen city. Ax did not utilise the technical difficulties to demonstrate his own mastery on the keyboard; but, most appealingly, he chose the harder path of offering Beethoven’s works in their full glory to the audience. Playing with apparent ease, he showed off the classical elegance of the C major concerto’s first movement, the sincerely felt pathos of the B flat major concerto’s Adagio and the wit, the cheekily “misplaced” accents in the final Rondos of both concertos. His touch on the keyboard was supremely controlled, the sound never harsh. He seemed to enjoy the deeply introverted quiet dialogue with the orchestra in the slow movement of the B flat major concerto and conquered the startlingly long cadenza of the first movement of the C major with stamina and exuberance. The excited applause following the jubilant ending of this movement, albeit somewhat understandable, broke the magic of descending from C major to the sombre tonality of A flat major opening the second movement.

The Sydney Symphony played with delicate empathy in both works assisted by some minute but exquisite solo passages from woodwind principal players. David Robertson, at the beginning of his tenure as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor, kept matters firmly under control with well-chosen tempi and his characteristic clear beat in the less familiar Hindemith work, and followed the soloist admirably in the two concertos.