In an interview published in the programme for this and Saturday's all Brahms Proms, Bernard Haitink decribes what he doesn't like about old fashioned ways about conducting Brahms. "...a bit like taking a dog for a walk and letting the dog stop at every tree" he says, criticising what he sees as a stop start approach to the composer. He prefers to "work towards a Brahms who is lighter on his feet". With the Chamber of Orchestra of Europe at his disposal he was in a perfect position to demonstrate this lightness of touch.
Chamber sized Brahms in the Albert Hall might lead one to think the sound would be swallowed up in such vast a space but there was none of it. The COE strings produced such a rich body of sound and with spot on balances the extra numbers of a full orchestra was never missed. It was all pluses and no minuses. The smaller forces were especially welcomed in the 3rd Symphony which, with the aid of split violin desks, allowed considerably more details (especially from the wind section) to shine through.
The opening of the first movement was unusually hesitant. It took some time for orchestra and conductor to get into their stride. By the time of the exposition repeat the orchestra had settled down but still there was a lack of urgency. After that it was glorious playing all the way,especially the inner movements where Haitink allowed the music to unfold in a natural, organic way. The folk like tunes of the andante sounded delightfully fresh aided by glowing string tone. The finale bristled with energy, developing real momentum without ever feeling rushed.
This sense of unhurriedness and natural pacing was carried over to the First piano concerto where Emanuel Ax (who performed the 2nd on the Saturday) gave one of the most least self conscious readings you are likely to hear in a long time. This is not to say there was anything bland about it: far from it. One may have wished for a little more drama in the outer movements but this was such musically enjoyable, selfless playing, matched by a beautifully unobtrusive COE, that these minor blemishes barely registered. The central adagio was especially fine - the dialogue between soloist and orchestra reaching its apex with a degree of chamber like intimacy that was utterly spellbinding.