Warmth, suppleness and even playfulness abound as Ax and Robertson continues their exemplary cycle.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

June 16, 2014

The audience gave the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor David Robertson and pianist Emanuel Ax a generous and genuine ovation last night, after hearing them perform the Beethoven concertos Nos 3 and 4 – and rightly so, because these musicians gave us Beethoven with love.

Even in the Third, written in the composer’s stormiest key of C Minor, Robertson and Ax provided warmth at every opportunity, and a playful touch in the concluding Rondo. One doesn’t really think of this concerto as having a particularly lyrical or playful aspect, but the team of Robertson and Ax were attuned to every sudden mood change built into the music. Both concertos reflect what we know of Beethoven the man: capable of lightning mood swings from drama and obsessiveness to humor and gentleness. How typical, for example, is the final throwaway gesture of the Fourth Concerto: a musical shrug of the shoulders after the intense drama of the second movement interlude, at the close of a finale mingling high spirits and tenderness. It is Beethoven genially saying “That’s all, folks.” Each one of these sections was perfectly pointed, without undue exaggeration.

Ax’s pianism was notable for clarity and precision. He has a way of detaching notes in scale passages in Classical period style – but, unlike some younger virtuosi, the result was not detached in an emotional sense. His playing evinces strength and warmth of tone. I was reminded of a pianist from the past, Claudio Arrau, and specifically his recordings of these concertos from the 1950s.

Ax was similarly poetic, especially in the heartfelt Fourth. Robertson was very good here too in his decisive moulding of the quasi-recitative of the second movement, the orchestral statements answered so expressively by the piano. As a colleague commented to me afterwards, the conductor’s extensive experience in opera makes him a highly sensitive and fluid accompanist.

In the Third Concerto’s first movement, Ax opted for the longer of Beethoven’s two cadenzas. The first movement of No 4 was punctuated by one of the finest and most percussive sneezes I have heard from any audience member. You may be able to catch it on ABC FM. It came right at a quiet cadence point: Ax and Robertson exchanged a bemused look, and then returned to their sublime task with equanimity.

The concert opened with Michael Tippett’s 1953 Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, for string orchestra (set out on the stage antiphonally) and a concertino group of two violins and cello. Again Robertson brought out the warmth in the writing, taking special care to emphasise the expansive lyrical lines that rise to the top of Tippett’s ever busy textures. There was impressive work also from the trio of soloists: Concertmaster Andrew Haveron, second violinist leader Kirsty Hilton and first cellist Umberto Clerici, who set out Tippett’s taxing writing with strength of purpose, plus the ecstatic ardour that his music demands. The orchestra played with great commitment throughout the concert; they clearly enjoy working with their new Chief Conductor.

This concert is repeated on Wednesday, June 18, at 8pm; and Beethoven’s Emperor, coupled with Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, on Friday, June 20, and Saturday, June 21, both at 8pm.