Conductor: Michael Stern
Barber: Symphony No 1, Op. 9
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 19 - Emmanuel Ax
Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op. 43
It is a well-known fact that Emmanuel Ax is one of those not-to-be-missed soloists, so when the only time I could go during his three-concert stint with the National Symphony Orchestra was this afternoon, the decision was really simple: I would just take some of my precious comp time off to hear the prolific master play Beethoven's lovely piano concerto No 2. Of course, the other meaty piece on the program being my beloved Sibelius' Symphony No 2 was another powerful incentive, and Barber's Symphony No 1 was going to be a discovery. And really, what's not to enjoy about having Friday afternoon off?
Barber started the concert with a fairly short, one-movement symphony featuring a wake-up call-style opening, constant vigorous energy and, most importantly in my eyes, some grandly lyrical passages for the strings. In short, the result was a healthy blend of modern and romantic traditions.
Beethoven's second piano concerto is always a special treat because of its classical quality, much more in tune with Haydn or Mozart than with the composer's ground-breaking, stormy later work. Having a sensitive pianist such as Emmanuel Ax make it come alive is truly a pleasure too rare to pass. Keeping his fingers light and displaying tranquil assurance, he inconspicuously emphasized the delicate finesse of the concerto. The NSO backed him up remarkably well under the baton of a much at ease Michael Stern.
It is for me an eternal frustration not to hear Sibelius' music more often in concert halls, so when I do, I am more than ready for it. This afternoon was no exception as I got to fully revel in his sweepingly lush melodies, fervently rousing passages and generally beautiful harmonies. The Pathétique-worthy final movement was so unabashedly romantic that it would have probably made Tchaikovsky jealous and totally explains why it rightfully stands as one of the most emotionally stirring finales of all classical music.