Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2, Cello Sonata / Ax, Ma, Haitink

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For nearly 40 years now, since he first came to international prominence at the head of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink has ranked as one of the world's finest Brahms conductors. The composer evidently awakens a kindred feeling in Haitink's complex artistic personality, which is a blend of powerful yet introverted emotion with masterful technical command. The Second Piano Concerto, moreover, is a work for which he seems to have an especial penchant. Having conducted notable recordings of it with Claudio Arrau and Alfred Brendel (both on Philips, though the latter seems to be currently unavailable), he now directs the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an account of the Concerto's orchestral part that is as majestic and tellingly detailed as any in my experience.

This would not be a matter of great moment were it not that Emanuel Ax, at his own magisterial best, matches Haitink's achievement stroke for illuminating stroke. Having been among Ax's admirers since almost the start of his career, I began to be troubled three or four years ago by a certain jaded quality that seemed to be invading his playing—too many concerts, perhaps? Last spring, however, a New York performance of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto with Colin Davis found him once again decidedly in the vein, and this Brahms more than consolidates his welcome return to form.

The celebrated horn solo at the start gets the Concerto going at a very leisurely pace. It is, indeed, not unusual for the opening pages to be treated somewhat in the manner of an introduction, with the main tempo firmly established only with the beginning of the true orchestral ritornello at measure 29. But what is particularly fascinating here is the way Ax's big preludiai solo seems to mediate in the most creative and convincing manner between the two basic tempos, with the result that all the diverse facets of this voluminous movement are, as it were, provided for from the outset. In all four movements the performers set tempos very close to the metronome marks—this is one of only a handful of works for which Brahms provided them—and in this regard Ax is utterly convincing at the transition to the coda in the finale, where the shift from 16th notes to triplet 8ths anticipates by more than half a century the device of metric modulation commonly thought to have been invented in Elliott Carter's Cello Sonata. The Andante, it is true, is taken a shade below the metronome figure, but Haitink keeps the long orchestral exordium (enhanced by a lovely cello solo) flowing beautifully, and the various expansions of the pulse later in the movement are realized by soloist and conductor alike with unusual cogency.

I could go on for pages citing the manifold touches of insight and sensitivity that distinguish this performance, but really you should hear them for yourself. Projected in recorded sound of exceptional fidelity and impeccable balance, Ax's performance encompasses every aspect of the work, by turns grand, brusque, intimate, gleaming, and in the finale attaining to a rare degree of exhilaration. As he has done several times in the past with other music, he made me feel as if I were hearing Brahms's great work for the first time. This is not to say that the best existing versions are superseded. Arrau and Brendel, Backhaus and Fischer, and the more recent recordings by Moravec and Idil Biret still have satisfactions of their own to offer. But Ax and Haitink must immediately be placed on that select list.

In any other context, the filler—Ax's performance with Yo-Yo Ma of a D-Major arrangement (probably not by Brahms) of the G-Major Violin Sonata—would call for expansive praise in its own right. It is quite beautifully played, and again recorded with excellent balance. But the Concerto is the thing. I cannot get it out of my mind, and I am sure I shall be listening to it (and inflicting it on visitors) often.

-- Bernard Jacobson, FANFARE [11/1999]

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: SONY56137

  • UPC: 886975613724

  • Label: Sony

  • Composer: Johannes Brahms

  • Conductor: Bernard Haitink

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Boston Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Emanuel Ax, Jules Eskin, Yo-Yo Ma


  1. Concerto for Piano no 2 in B flat major, Op. 83

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Ensemble: Boston Symphony Orchestra

    Performer: Emanuel Ax (Piano), Jules Eskin (Cello)

    Conductor: Bernard Haitink

  2. Sonata for Violin and Piano no 1 in G major, Op. 78

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Performer: Emanuel Ax (Piano), Yo-Yo Ma (Cello)

  3. Sonata for Violin and Piano no 1 in G major, Op. 78

    Composer: Johannes Brahms

    Performer: Emanuel Ax (Piano), Yo-Yo Ma (Cello)