Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 3

Ax, Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Haitink

Royal Albert Hall, 23 August 2011 4 stars

Emanuel AxMine may be the sole voice of dissent among the evident enthusiastic appreciation, but I was disappointed with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Indeed, on the strength of this particular concert, I find it hard to equate their reputation with what I heard.

Members of the orchestra are drawn from leaders of other orchestras, from soloists, and from other distinguished quarters. The orchestra was founded thirty years ago, and eighteen of their founder members are still there. With all these musical and practical ingredients, ensemble work should be wonderful, but I found that the style of playing between various orchestral sections varied.

For instance, the first oboe put his heart into every single note (thus sounding slightly sentimental at times), while some of the horn and brass players blew but did not 'sing' on their instruments. The first clarinet's pitching seemed to differ from his colleagues in the wind section. At times violins sounded more rough than passionate. However, the cellos and bassoons get my vote without reservations.

Having now heard the COE, I appreciate even more the unity in the three orchestras which I reviewed during the current Prom season: the Hallé (Prom 9), the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Prom 15) and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra (Prom 29).

Bernard Haitink's knowledge of Brahms symphonies is thorough, as shown among others in his recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra a few years ago. His humility and respect for the composer is exemplary. On this occasion Haitink had the score of Symphony No. 3 in front of him but he conducted from memory. He guides rather than dictates to his players: in theory this is a wonderful method but in practice it does not always produce the most inspired results.

Although seemingly functioning as if only one of the musicians on stage, Haitink's control over well chosen tempi and tight rhythmic structure is constant. However, diction within the bars is sometimes lacking, like in the five bars of quaver passages before the first repeat mark in the first movement, and in the violins' first set of semiquaver passages in the second movement. Nevertheless, Haitink's exquisite tempo changes maintained beauty throughout.

At this concert, ultimate music making was provided by pianist Emanuel Ax. In performing Brahms's first piano concerto he was inspired and inspiring, probing and lucid, mysterious (as all great music is) and transparent, and last but not least humble and commanding. Ax was instrumental (in all meanings of the word) in creating true chamber music in the dialogues between piano solo and various orchestral sections, while Haitink's self-effacing support provided the frame work for Ax's search for perfection. It was a privilege to see Ax and Haitink in action and it was hugely enjoyable too.

By Agnes Kory

Photo: Emanuel Ax and members of the COE at the Proms, BBC/Chris Christodoulou

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