Haitink, Ax and BSO deliver an illuminated Brahms

May 2, 2018 at 11:56 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Guest conductor Bernard Haitink led the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Emanuel Ax on piano Monday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Guest conductor Bernard Haitink led the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Emanuel Ax on piano Monday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Some of the most engaging performers of Brahms’ music take slight liberties with the meticulous directions that dot the composer’s scores.

In his Piano Concerto No. 2, which Emanuel Ax performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Symphony Hall, score markings seemed less like performance suggestions cast in stone than a blueprint for personal expression. The concerto’s second movement is unmistakable, opening with a driving piano phrase that is answered by low strings in a descending, syncopated line. The composer marked the passage “marcato sempre” (always with emphasis), but in the hands of Ax and the evening’s guest conductor, Bernard Haitink, the passage unfolded broadly to make for a soaring introduction to a movement known for its interplay between darkness and light.

Hardly a season goes by that the BSO doesn’t perform either of Brahms’ piano concertos. Last season, Andris Nelsons led a mini-festival that featured both concertos—with pianist Hélène Grimaud—as well as all four symphonies. Good as those performances were, these works are overplayed.

But Ax and Haitink are consummate Brahms interpreters, and their performance of the concerto revealed hidden delicacies by working a comfortable middle ground between robust intensity and searching lyricism. Brahms relished the wide sonic sphere between extremes of loud and soft; his score is chock-full of mezzo fortes as well as crescendos that evaporate into sudden quiet. And in those passages Ax and Haitink followed Brahms’ score with an eye to every detail.

Ax also found the sumptuous sides of this expansive and emotionally charged score. His sveltely shaped duets with the opening French horn solo brought touches of light. Yet he delivered Brahms’s difficult passagework with precision and power, his phrases articulated firmly through his generous use of the sustain pedal.

In the finale, Ax played with finesse, the trickling lines exuding Mozartean grace more than the gypsy swagger so integral to the movement. But the gem of Tuesday’s performance was the third movement. After BSO principal cellist Blaise Déjardin — in his debut — lofted the opening solo with a deep mahogany tone, Ax entered with dense figures that seemed to resonate with an almost orchestral weight.

Throughout, Haitink proved a sensitive partner, conjuring rich melodic and harmonic shading to match Ax’s performance. In his treatment later on of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, similarly spacious tempos revealed Brahms’ intimate melodic writing and made for compelling listening.

Although the composer declared No. 2 his saddest orchestral work to date (it was completed in 1877), it ended up the cheeriest of his four symphonies. Haitink, who has recorded the complete cycle with the BSO, led with an eye to the work’s grand architecture. The conductor’s small gestures brought out a few of the score’s details, and the orchestra responded beautifully. Strings in the outer movements played with gleaming tone. Woodwinds added a splash of color when called upon, and Richard Sebring’s French horn solos in the first and second movements peeked out like sun through clouds.

Haitink took care to weave each thread of melody into plush tapestries of sound in the thickly scored Adagio. His flowing tempos did little to hinder the drive of the final movement, where trombones and tuba supplied gravity. Solo oboe and flute brought bucolic warmth to the Scherzo.

At 89, Haitink continues to work like a man half his age. After the performance, the audience showered him in loud cheers, and the conductor bowed in gratitude. Indeed, his appearances with the BSO are something to celebrate and cherish.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200.


Posted in Performances

One Response to “Haitink, Ax and BSO deliver an illuminated Brahms”

  1. Posted May 02, 2018 at 6:10 pm by nimitta

    “Indeed, his appearances with the BSO are something to celebrate and cherish.”

    So true – Saturday will be his last performance ever at Symphony Hall, I believe.

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