Bernard Haitink, Emanuel Ax and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

A great Proms moment and the end of an era: Bernard Haitink applauds Emanuel Ax and the Vienna Philharmonic after playing Beethoven together for probably the last time at the Proms

I had to ask and look to check whether the piano tonight was the Albert Hall’s usual Steinway Grand because Emanuel Ax played the opening run so delicately it could have been a forte-piano. This was the tone of his performance throughout, ethereal, great delicacy, precision and charm. Hardly a hint of Sturm und Drang.
Maybe my mood was set by seeing the veteran conductor Bernard Haitink walk on stage to cheers from the audience, face beaming though walking with all the difficulty of a maestro now in his ninetieth year; tonight’s interpretation of the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto struck me as much with pathos as with beauty.
Emanuel Ax played softly and delicately, straining the concentration of the audience, seemingly pulling us in to the world of two musicians who have made great music together many many times but who both know this is coming to an end. We were privileged to hear piano playing at the other end of the experience spectrum to “Young Musician”: clarity of interpretation, depth, serenity and poise.

Maestro Haitink has been a fond favourite with the Proms audience since his Mahler interpretations at the Proms in the Seventies, London has also enjoyed at first hand his triumphant Beethoven cycle with the LSO.
There have been several final appearances from Bernard Haitink but I fear tonight’s may indeed be the last. Not that the performance was without great accuracy and delicacy but its power was in its sombre, reflective energy. One thinks also of the composer, when he played the première of this piano concerto in 1808, Beethoven was by this time almost completely deaf.
There’s an analogy with Otto Klemperer’s late performances of Beethoven with his Philharmonic orchestra, which influenced me greatly as a schoolboy listener to my radio. Klemperer’s interpretations struck me then as unusually true to the written music and I find the same with tonight’s performances.
The Vienna Philharmonic played with great precision and the fine string tone for which they are justly famous, responding closely to the small but precise indications of the baton and the left hand.
The arena was as uncomfortably full as I have ever experienced it, the indefatigable uniformed staff of the Albert Hall gently managing the crowd.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 in G major
Franz Schubert: Impromptu in Ab Op.142 No.2
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No 7 in E major
Johannes Brahms: Violin Sonata No 1 in G major Op 78 (1st mvt)
Johann Strauss II: Eine Nacht in Venedig (Overture)

Emanuel Ax - piano
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Bernard Haitink - conductor