Lights dimmed in the crowded David Geffen Hall for a program of Beethoven and Brahms. “Meat and potatoes,” said a nearby audience member. The concert-master tuned, and the New York Philharmonic began a satisfying program of the German masters. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, conducted by the unflappable Alan Gilbert, opened politely with a straightforward and controlled poco sostenuto, setting the framework for the dipping, diving Vivace. The orchestra burst to life, unleashing a string of tumbling suspensions.

In the forte passages, the feverish strings nearly swallowed the two horns and trumpets. The brass section was problematic, with hasty entrances and a few muddy splats. Fortunately, this did little to distract from the driving momentum that twists and turns throughout the piece. The iconic Allegretto moved like a tightrope walker, with each note being a step along the high wire. There is nowhere to hide in the exposed opening, and a keen concentration makes or breaks the balance. When this laser focus drops even a little, the evidence is clear: the orchestra wavered before regaining its footing. Soon this vulnerability gave way to airy arpeggios and a loveliness that was well earned.

The third and fourth movements pushed and pulled, pressing ahead with swinging, acrobatic motion. It was easy to get swept up in the husky strings and racing brass that careen suddenly with Beethoven’s characteristic surprises. Deceptive cadences, sharp changes in texture, and dramatic subito dynamics were all brought to life with freshness and passion.  

On the whole, the performance was painted in masculinity. New statements announced themselves with boldness, the timpani pounding, and the strings swelling like muscles. Maybe this is a fingerprint of the composer rather than the performers. After all, Beethoven was known for his exuberant temperament. He may have been hard of hearing, but he isn’t hard to be heard.

An entirely new and gratifyingly feminine flavor was brought into play with Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major. A horn solo floated above the murmuring low keys of the piano and evoked a sense of compassion and serenity. Emanuel Ax shone. He approaches the instrument with a calmness that is refreshingly genuine, without an ounce of ostentatiousness. He played with dazzling comfort, like the music was his oldest and best friend, simultaneously familiar and fascinating.

The opening Allegro non troppo unfolded like a green summer morning. It was almost as if the pianist was a painter, consciously creating the world of the orchestra around him. Images came to mind of Brahms in his parlor, sketching away while breezes blow in through an open window. In the accurately marked Allegro appassionato, a contrasting personality took to the stage. The orchestra sang longingly with tugging strings and yearning winds. The Andante featured a warm, rich viola passage that brought out a distinct and welcomed alto voice. 

Emanuel Ax and Alan Gilbert remained in perfect synchronization throughout the concerto, almost as if connected by an invisible thread. The orchestra played with a unity and purpose that seemed lacking in the Beethoven. Perhaps the best feature of this concerto is that it doesn’t try to shake heaven and earth. There was no overblown Sturm und Drang, and no dizzying displays of virtuosic prowess – just a beautiful, mature concerto. Just good music. Meat and potatoes.