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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77 (1878) [39:37]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858) [48:16]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op 47 (1842) [28:04]
Emmanuel Ax (piano)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Emmanuel Ax (piano)
RCO Chamber Soloists: Vesko Eschkenazy (violin); Henk Rubingh (viola); Gregor Horsch (cello)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 17-19 & 21 March 2010 (violin concerto); 15, 17 & 19 December 2010 (piano concerto), Concertgebouw, Amsterdam; 20 June 2016, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam (quartet) DSD
Reviewed in stereo
RCO LIVE SACD RCO17001 [39:37 + 76:20]

On consecutive evenings in August 2011 Emmanuel Ax and Bernard Haitink took part, along with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, in two exceptionally fine Brahms concerts at the BBC Proms. Each of the concerts included a symphony and one of the piano concertos. I greatly enjoyed those performances and still have off-air recordings of the concertos so I was delighted to receive this set which includes a recording of the D minor concerto compiled from concerts given a few months earlier, in December 2010.

The opening of the Piano Concerto is suitably powerful and dark but it’s noticeable that in the long orchestral introduction Haitink also shapes the less turbulent episodes expertly and with no little feeling. Once Ax joins in his pianism is immediately ear-catching, mixing power and poise. The sound of his instrument is conveyed most successfully by the engineers, which adds to the listener’s enjoyment. He and Haitink display a fine rapport and they sustain the tension across the vast span of this first movement, something that not all musicians achieve. They give a commanding, heroic account of the movement and bring it to a dynamic, exciting conclusion.

Ideally, I’d have liked a few more seconds of pause between the first and second movements than RCO Live allow – you might like to hit the “pause” button. However, once the movement has started, the music gently glowing under Haitink’s direction, you can just settle back and revel in the experience. Ax’s playing is aristocratic and poetic while he receives sensitive support from Haitink and the RCO. At the end of my listening notes for this movement I’ve written just one word: “memorable”. In the Rondo finale, all concerned display energy and fine momentum but there’s delicacy too when the music demands it. At the end of the performance the Amsterdam audience is most enthusiastic in their applause and no wonder; this is a highly distinguished account of the concerto.

The Violin Concerto, which is placed by itself on Disc 1, impresses right away; the RCO produces a lovely mellow sound at the outset. With Haitink at the helm the music unfolds with natural authority and throughout the movement his pacing is astute. Zimmermann’s singing tone is most attractive and at times he’s generous with portamento, though not in a way that I found distracting. He can also produce fiery playing when necessary. He plays the Joachim cadenza and does it very well indeed. The sublime passage that follows immediately on from the end of the cadenza is radiantly done here.

The opening of the Adagio is simply wonderful; the RCO woodwind choir sounds superb and the principal oboe, who lead the way, plays with unforced eloquence. Zimmermann’s cantabile playing is shown to excellent advantage. This movement is one of the composer’s most glorious creations and a persuasive soloist and refined orchestra here work in alliance to produce a marvellous account of it. The finale is very well done also, the spirited performance is full of good humour. Applause follows the end of the concerto.

These two concerto performances are some seven years old and I wonder, in passing, why it’s taken so long to issue them. The set comes with a substantial “filler” of much more recent vintage in the shape of a 2016 performance of the Schumann Piano Quartet in which Emmanuel Ax collaborates with three members of the RCO Chamber Soloists. This ensemble comprises five principals of the RCO: the three players on duty here (Henk Rubingh is the RCO’s principal second violin but switches to viola for this performance) as well as the orchestra’s principal flute, Emily Benyon and principal clarinet, Olivier Patey.

One thing becomes clear pretty early on in this performance. Though Emmanuel Ax is an internationally renowned pianist there is no sense at all that we’re hearing a star pianist plus three other musicians. Ax is far too intelligent and sensitive a musician for that; this performance is a genuine collaboration between four equals. The Quartet is in four movements, the first of which is attractive and inventive; it receives a spirited performance. The music of the short Scherzo is almost hyper-active and the present performance is very deft. The Andante cantabile is a delightful creation. At the start the lustrous tone of cellist Gregor Horsch introduces the movement’s beguiling main theme. That’s then heard as a canon with the violin and the playing of Vesko Eschkenazy, the RCO’s concertmaster, is no less distinguished. In this movement, all four musicians evidence not just considerable skill but also significant empathy with the music. Annotator Marco Nakken describes the finale as “a veritable contrapuntal tour de force” and he’s right. Schumann’s contrapuntal lines are here delivered with great clarity in a sparkling performance. I don’t know if an audience was present for this fine Schumann performance but there’s no applause at the end.

The performance of the Schumann Quartet is anything but a makeweight. It’s actually a delightful addition to a highly desirable Brahms collection. All three performances are presented in very good sound. This coupling is rather unusual; you’d usually expect to find the two Brahms piano concertos paired and that makes me wonder if RCO Live don’t have access to an Ax/Haitink performance of the B flat Piano Concerto. That would be a pity but we must live in hope.

John Quinn



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