An evening that began with downplayed expectations, ended in a deeply humane and disarming experience. Bernard Haitink, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and their regular soloist Emanuel Ax offered a rapturous Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, while the rendition of Symphony no. 4 in E minor measured up to the heights of his towering Beethoven cycle several years ago. Over the last two seasons, Haitink has returned with the COE for a complete Brahms cycle. His sensational Beethoven cycle provoked hopes of a similar experience with Brahms, but on this final evening with Brahms’ late works, the expectations were less high. The three preceding performances were of great quality, but none had delivered the deeply humane power that Haitink and the COE brought to Beethoven. Tonight was different, because they achieved just that: another monumental experience.

Emanuel Ax © Marie Mazzucco | Sony
Emanuel Ax
© Marie Mazzucco | Sony

After Ax sat down at the Steinway, Haitink opened Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with his left hand gracefully beckoning the horn player to slowly awaken the orchestra with the opening theme. It was the Dutch conductor’s most expressive gesture of the evening. After the strings followed the horn solo, Ax stormed into the sprawling opening piano passage. In its antiphonal setting, the COE’s violins flanked the pianist on both sides, while the basses were stationed to his left. For the first half of the concerto, the beauty of the experience was found in the dense form of Brahms’ composition, crisply brought to life by the orchestra and the pianist. While the Allegro non troppo and the Allegro appassionato moved along, the musicians summoned with technical mastery alternately the brooding or furious moods in the passages. Though the timpani sounded dull at first, they rebounded quickly. The fragile warmth emerging from the oboist Kai Frömbgen early on foreshadowed his sensitive contribution later. It was not until the third movement that the evening was elevated from excellent music making to a very special occasion.

In the Andante, musical magic happened when Haitink permitted Richard Lester to captivate the audience with his solo. The lead cellist offered fiery lyricism to the passage that contrasted beautifully with the streamlined backup of his cellos. For a moment, when Ax’s dainty piano passage joined in on the cello solo, it might as well have been a double concerto, especially later on when the cellist returned with more generosity (even though Brahms has the cello in a different key). When the oboist popped up again for his brief few notes with them, the three shared the dynamic of an experienced trio. They played off each other with tangible warmth and respect. The result was clear: they had enchanted the deeply moved audience into stunned silence.

After just a moment’s pause, the ensemble, building on the foundation of the third movement’s intensity, headed full on into the Allegretto grazioso. Ax offered playfulness to Brahms’ virtuoso passages. Haitink shifted tempo when moving through the sweeping Hungarian rhythms. As the tear-inducing emotion of the Andante still resonated through the final movement, the finale's joyous mood worked as a disarming catharsis. The contradicting experience of the abstract beauty of the first half of the concerto, followed by the soulful second half, only contributed to this deeply humane journey. The audience gave a standing ovation while the éminences grises stood with the COE behind them.

After the intermission, Haitink continued his magic in Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. In the first movement Allegro non troppo, the Dutchman elicited from the strings a captivating overarching tension, which he sustained from the other sections throughout the entire symphony. In the midst of it, Haitink continued his build up in the Andante moderato, offering the audience moments of contemplation during the slower passages in this second movement, without damaging any of the overarching suspense. In the end, Haitink increased this suspense as the timpani thunderously rippled through the strings while opening the last movement. He only released his audience from their concentration after the finale.

Most outrageous of the evening, and even a bit flamboyant, was the triangle in the third movement’s Allegro giocoso. Zealously played, the brief moments with the triangle made me reassess the instrument’s purpose, as it did not function to highlight, but in this loud presence added some sort of rhythm – remarkably theatrical for Haitink. And the lead flautist excelled in her exquisite flute solo in the fourth movement, Clara Andrada de la Calle providing warmth, purity and elegance: the sensitivity needed before Haitink lead the orchestra through the triumphant finale. Perhaps Brahms symphonies are too dense to be played by a chamber orchestra, as Haitink and the COE might have experienced themselves, but in this performance tonight, their collaboration transcended this hurdle.