Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink’s yearly visit to Symphony Hall is always a much anticipated event for both orchestra and audience. Something special and memorable is bound to occur. This week’s all-Brahms program with Emanuel Ax was no exception. The debut of Blaise Déjardin as first cello heightened the sense of occasion. A ten-year veteran of the section, he is only the fourth person to sit first chair in the last 99 years, thanks primarily to the 52-year tenure of his late predecessor, Jules Eskin. The program could not have been more apt. The cellos are often the voice of Brahms’ most intimate thoughts. They figure prominently in the mellow soundscape of both the Second Piano Concerto, with its famous, mood-changing third movement solo, and the Second Symphony, adding a distinctive tint to the twilit autumnal colors which shade the brightness of the major key of each movement. Haitink moved the violas to the outside in recognition of their crucial contribution to the this shared palette.

Bernard Haitink and Emanuel Ax © Robert Torres
Bernard Haitink and Emanuel Ax
© Robert Torres

Along with the new came the familiar: the enduring collaboration between Haitink and Emanuel Ax and in one of their standards, the Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, a work they recorded with the BSO over 25 years ago. Not surprisingly, the performance had the quality of an interrupted conversation where old friends take up a subject with renewed vigor and fresh insight. After his arpeggio response lapped the final notes of the opening horn solo like sun-dappled waves, Ax embarked on an emphatic and assertive rendering of the Olympian first two movements, the booming bass line hewn with his left hand as powerful and eloquent as the notes sounded with his right. This equalization of hands remained notable throughout. As the concerto turned more intimate and introspective in the third movement, Ax’s tone and touched lightened and the piano become more another instrument in the orchestra, albeit one with a central role. Déjardin's cello warmly caressed the wistful melody Brahms would later set to words in long, languorous phrases. The interplay between it and the piano took on the quality of a nocturne of whispered confidences and reminiscences, setting up an audible contrast with Ax’s brilliant, quicksilver frolic through the following Allegretto grazioso

Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony © Robert Torres
Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony
© Robert Torres

Haitink adopted the same warm, rounded tone and broad, expansive tempi for the Second Symphony he elicited for the concerto. Though his timings for the latter have remained consistent over the years, the symphony has slowed markedly from the brisk 38:19 of his 1971 recording with the Concertgebouw. Saturday’s performance clocked in at a tad over 48 minutes, yet it never dragged or flagged. The shifting moods of the four movements flowed from the tip of his baton in long, tensile phrases with billowing waves of sound rolling, rising and falling, against the colors of a changeable sky. Haitink imbued Brahms’ first movement reworking of his famous lullaby with an elegiac quality, a thread he wove through the subsequent movements. Climaxes built with inexorable inevitability, the final, clarion and cathartic D major coda only briefly delayed by the orchestra stuttering like an old locomotive whose wheels skitter and spin in reverse as it builds up steam and gains traction to finally crest a steep incline. The whole performance with its overarching suggestion of seizing the days as they dwindle down to a precious few brought to mind Weill and Anderson’s September Song.

Haitink dropped his arms and the audience rose with a roar in a prolonged standing ovation. The orchestra refused to stand and bow with him at one point, creating a solo bow he politely tolerated. The audience was loathe to let him go. Haitink has been a yearly visitor for decades, but won’t be back next season. He has long ceased to perform a Friday matinée after a Thursday evening performance and this program was given three times in five days, allowing him a day off between concerts. At 89, he may feel the need for a respite to recharge his batteries, especially after illness in February forced him to cancel engagements. As his days on the podium dwindle, let’s hope we’ll see him back soon.