The magisterial playing of Emanuel Ax in Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto – notoriously fiendish to interpret convincingly and technically challenging – was exemplary in its clarity, sense of line and phrase, dynamic control and astounding variation in touch. Ax’s rather understated yet mercurial approach meant this was a performance to treasure, not least because of the strong rapport between Ax and the LSO, and his ability to replicate on the keyboard the colours of his supporting orchestral soloists, notably Timothy Hugh’s elegant cello and Juliana Koch’s piquant oboe. Ax also brought a wonderful sense of the improvisatory to many passages. The third movement was the emotional core of the reading; pliant and romantic but not overly so. The Finale, with its intertwining and varied repetition of themes was deftly negotiated by Simon Rattle. Ax and Hugh then gave a mood-calming Schumann encore.
It was indeed calm before the overtly romantic performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony with waves and swathes of sound engulfing the auditorium. Rattle’s interpretation was only just the right side of indulgent in that some of his more-expansive tempos nearly let the music’s surge lose their momentum, though he’s a master at restoring focus. The visually arresting placing of double basses in a row behind the woodwinds and brass brought dividends from an acoustic perspective; rather better than it had in the Brahms. Again, the third movement proved to be core, heralded by an exemplary clarinet solo from Chris Richards. Throughout the Symphony, the overall brightness, brilliance and body of the sound were exhilarating; great programme, too, exemplifying such different compositional approaches to romanticism.