Showing posts with label Emanuel Ax. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emanuel Ax. Show all posts

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Double Brahmsfest: Haitink and Abbado go head to head

Another Friday, another Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 given at a great music festival by legendary performers. Honest to goodness, it's quite something to hear it in Lucerne with Abbado at the helm one week and at the Proms under Haitink just seven days later. Last night's Prom was a Brahmsfest par excellence - and the first of two, since tonight the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Bernard Haitink and Emanuel Ax follow it up with the Piano Concerto No.2 and the Symphony No.4.

Yesterday opened with the Third Symphony (which steamed into first place as my favourite of the four while I was on tour with the LPO and Vladimir last December) - the most intimate of them, it's the one you can turn, while listening, into the middle-period piano sonata Brahms never wrote, or the finest of his chamber works. In Haitink's hands the solid centre radiated the orchestration's golden glow; the playing was faultless, the tempi spot-on-delicious, the beauty and reflectiveness balanced out with certain touch and vast affection. Brahms 3 doesn't get much better than that. It was so good that there's almost nothing to say.

As for the concerto, Manny Ax was everything that last week Radu Lupu unfortunately didn't manage to be. I don't know what happened to Lupu in Lucerne, but he wasn't on form - technically the concerto was all over the shop, and there were some alarming moments where he and the orchestra seemed to be on different planets - the passage in the final movement just before the fugue, where the piano duets with a French horn off the beat, was a case in point (one pitied the poor horn player). What remained was Lupu's characteristic sound, a palette like an Odilon Redon pastel, dusky, velvety and radiant all at once. Ax, by contrast, was rock solid, dynamic, shining, thoughtful, humane.

And Haitink v Abbado? Telling, dear friends. Very telling. Haitink is a conductor whose work I've revered for donkey's years. There's something pure about his approach, free of egomania and point-proving, setting out simply to convey the truth of the music as he feels it and thinks it through. In the past his Ring Cycle was what turned me on to Wagner, his Ravel Daphnis left me exhilarated and his Mahler Nine sent me home speechless. And this Brahms 3 was, as I said, pretty much perfect.

But last week Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra arrived riding a different variety of phoenix. Things went wrong - plenty wrong - if this was only Lupu's doing, I just couldn't say. Yet that opening orchestral exposition wasn't only strong, but revelatory. Abbado's detailed emphases lit the opening motif like a shaft of sidelight in a Caravaggio; the phrasing of the second theme's descending scale linked it at once in the mind to the melody of the slow movement. Risks were taken, all of them in the service of dear old Johannes, and when they paid off they did so spectacularly. Haitink and Ax took few risks: what resulted was the solidity of the ideal just about realised. Yet despite all its problems, it's the Abbado-Lupu performance that I suspect I'll still remember in 20 years' time, assuming my brain is still in reasonable working order by then.

One other little grumble involves the RAH acoustics. For me, Ax's performance fell foul of The Echo. Apparently this phenomenon is well known at the Proms. It's not something I normally encounter in the usual press seats around door H, but this time we were by door J, further round the circle, and each piano note seemed to sound twice in rapid succession. Others have tweeted that they too experienced this, one from the centre of the arena, another from the other side of the stalls, so it's clearly not specific to seat 52 in row 7. Some say it does not detract from their enjoyment of the music, but I found it immensely bothersome, especially in the fast passages where at times it felt like seeing double. Please could someone investigate whether anything can be done about it?

Meanwhile, read more about my trip to Lucerne in yesterday's Independent, here.

And here is a taster of the performance last night from BBC TV - accessible only to UK readers, I'm afraid (that's not my doing, folks).