In many senses, Brahms is a 'marmite' composer. He is rarely met with indifference. Whilst some glorify the power and force of his orchestral writing, others shy away from this Germanic 'heaviness'; whilst some idolize his ability to weave passages and themes through one another to culminate in fierce climaxes, others condemn a fragmented and 'academic' style of writing.

© BBC / Henry Fair
© BBC / Henry Fair

Beginning his conducting career in 1958, Bernard Haitink has witnessed attitudes and approaches to Brahms change, evolve and contest each other over the latter part of the 20th century. For the 49th Prom of this summer's season – with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the piano virtuoso Emanuel Ax – Haitnik brought his mature perspective and fresh energy to the stage to conduct Brahms' Second Piano Concerto and Fourth and final Symphony.

Brahms's 2nd Piano Concerto was completed 22 years after its antecedent, whilst the composer was living in Pressbaum, near Vienna. In contrast to the 1st Piano Concerto, the work was met with warm approval, which became widespread as the composer brought the work to many European cities. Over 100 years later it is still a firm favourite in the canon, and a cornerstone work for pianists wishing to add Brahms to their repertoire. Under Haitink's baton, the work was exquisitely wrought. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe was extremely responsive to the subtle architecture he demanded from each phrase; the smaller ensemble more permissive to his tender, delicate tailoring.

Emanuel Ax describes the 2nd Piano Concerto as a 'work he learned many years ago and has tried to get right ever since.' He brought a firm yet vivacious tone to the sanguine first movement, keeping the opening chordal passages bright, revealing a slightly darker energy for the later parts of the movement that veer towards an ominous state of tension. Melodic passages were given a full, expressive legato, whereas transitional passages were neat and trim, moving the music forward. Haitink did not pull the tempo around as much as is now customary, although sometimes clipped faster passages to give a greater bite. The haunting second movement, with juxtaposition of permissiveness and impetuous zeal, was also slightly reserved. The third movement revealed the strengths of the chamber ensemble, where the slightly grittier string textures one finds within a smaller ensemble gave a rarely heard edge, and the beautiful cello solo shone through the other part writing with a distinct elegance. The fourth movement was more satisfying in relation to what had come before, pulling the strands of melodic fabric together in a heady climax.

However, despite the success of the finesse with which the work was performed, there was a distinct feeling of reservation which worked against the expressive potential of the music. It was apparent that the concentration was on the polished surface of each phrase, rather than on its emotional kernel. The work never forgot itself or properly let go even in the the finale and therefore never reached the point where it transcended itself, or surrendered to our modern conception of 'true' romantic passion.

The 4th symphony, was distinctly more satisfying. Completed in short proximity to his 3rd, the two are often treated as a complementary pair, although it is the 4th that is considered the more musically ingenious. On completion, many found the taut structure of this intricate tapestry of motifs difficult to accept, although the material still asserts a sense of spontaneity and profound emotional depth.

The luscious harmonies and melodic surfaces that comprise the first two movements of the Symphony were undoubtedly more suited to Haitink's conducting style. But also, there was less of a sense of the 'tightness' that had dominated the first performance, and the orchestra seemed more at ease; caught in the motions of Brahms's writing. The third movement was light and crisp, with something of a buoyant, fresh, 'Britishness' about it. Phrases were lifted, spun out, then lingered ever so slightly before returning back to their starting point. The fourth movement convincingly fulfilled the previous movements; it felt fresh and organic, yet Haitink's foot was still touching the brake slightly; the climactic melodies from the string section were unified by a sense of strength rather than fervour.

Although more expressive than the second piano concerto, there was no sense of the passionate abandon that most Brahms lovers seek from his work. In this sense, the concert posed a pressing question with regards to the role of lighter, more historically appropriate interpretations of romantic composers. Although there is undoubtedly a value and historical interest as to the conditions and cultural environment that Brahms would have written under, as a performance to a modern audience who have been shaped by the cultural conditions of the 20th century, what can this now reserved interpretation give? For those of us who have learned to appreciate the gargantuan scale of modern orchestral composition, a truly romantic rendering of any composition is no longer going to evoke the listener in the same manner. However, for a precisely-tailored and accurate portrayal of the composer, that may help cross the marmite divide and lend appeal to Brahms' softer side, Bernard Haitnik's rendition was incomparable.