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MUSIC REVIEW

Noble Brahms, in experienced hands

Soloist Emanuel Ax played Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the BSO last night. Soloist Emanuel Ax played Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the BSO last night. (j. henry fair)

Once the BSO's principal guest conductor and now its conductor emeritus, Bernard Haitink returned to Symphony Hall last night to lead the BSO in the first of two sets of performances, and from the moment he took the stage, one could sense the warmth of his rapport with the audience.

Warmth was the operative word to describe not only the reception he received from both listeners and musicians, but also the quality at the core of the broad yet focused tone he consistently drew from the orchestra in this all-Brahms program.

Never mind a frilly overture to perk up the crowd -- the night began with Haitink and the orchestra plunging straight into the river of Brahms's Third Symphony. From the outset, this was playing notable for its tensile strength and the careful attention to balance. There were delicately threaded woodwind solos, full but round-edged playing from the brass, a rich earthy tone in the lower strings, and a cleanly chiseled melodic profile from the violins.

Haitink's interpretation, as is often the case, wedded a nobility of statement and a structural rigor with a keen responsiveness to the vast reservoirs of emotion that run beneath the surface of this work. Most striking was the arrestingly gentle pianissimo sound he drew from the orchestra at certain points in the symphony's two inner movements.

On hand after intermission was Emanuel Ax, there to dispense the many notes of Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1. He did so with impressive clarity of articulation, tonal depth, and rhetorical force. The textures of the piano writing in this work at times call to mind Beethoven, but the rhapsodic lyricism was all Brahms's own. The orchestra's playing was not always note-perfect, but it had more important qualities: vigor and sweep in the outer movements, and in the slow movement, some of the same entrancing pianissimo playing from the strings, with Ax's solo lines drifting sublimely above.

The classical music world is abuzz at the moment about a 26-year-old wunderkind being appointed to the podium of a major American orchestra. On view last night was the other side of the spectrum: a veteran conductor at 78 sharing insights gleaned from a lifetime of immersion in a repertoire, empowering both orchestra and soloist to play at a high level, and reaping all of the attendant rewards.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

'Related'

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Bernard Haitink, conductor

At: Symphony Hall (last night, repeats today, tomorrow, and Tuesday)

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