Criticism of Brahms' orchestration, so often concerned with supposedly clumsy couplings and other textural decisions, would have little to go on after a performance like this. The orchestral sound was lean, but never malnourished, exposing the frame without making it skeletal. Haitink's approach to the symphony did much to lighten the sonorities too, insisting on highly articulated phrases, so that the lines never lagged or became ambiguous in their direction. Furthermore, the relatively reduced string forces (actually akin to what Brahms would have expected) afforded a fleet-footedness that a larger orchestra simply could not offer, allowing the players to navigate Brahms' counterpoint with clarity rather than languor.

© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The instrumental playing was exceptional as well: woodwind sounds that ravished and string colours only imaginable in the intimacy of a quartet. Of course, such transparency also carries greater risks, and the antiphonal seating of the violin sections did not help secure every corner of the ensemble; yet, by way of counterbalance, the centred celli and basses provided a clearer gravity to the sound, particularly in the concerto.

And if Haitink had created an ideal orchestral mould, Emanuel Ax was its perfect complement. His sound was rich and warm: a gentle muscularity that could further shape and penetrate the COE's svelte figure. Just as the symphony had revealed its more chamber-like sonorities, Ax found the symphonic currents – and their subtler counterparts – in the concerto; indeed, this work had begun life as Brahms' first attempt at writing a symphony, in the wake of Robert Schumann's attempted suicide in 1854, which deeply affected the younger composer.

Yet this is not the only connection to Schumann in the concerto, nor is it its emotional apex either. Beneath the second movement, Brahms included the words 'Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini' ('Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord'), as if he were imagining this as a private requiem for Robert. Alternatively, as Brahms suggested in a later letter, this slow movement was actually a portrait of Robert's widow, Clara, whom Brahms loved dearly. Whatever the extra-musical reading, the emotional heights were achieved by letting this music speak for itself, and powerfully so. Never did contrived sentimentality distort the line or over-egg the pudding; it was just painfully honest, and even Ax's bars of rest were charged with an intensity that pinned, pressed, and persuaded the listener to the end of the grand rondo finale.