Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra had good reason to celebrate with the audience spilling out into the choir stalls for Chen Plays Brahms.

The concert's title had the punch of a slogan heralding a special encounter between John Chen, the finest New Zealand pianist of his generation, and one of the most monumental of all concertos.

And so there was a sense of expectation running through the opening pages of Brahms' First Concerto when Radoslaw Szulc led the orchestra towards the soloist's first appearance. Initially, Chen dealt out a rather cool espressivo, but it was a tactic; the more expansive second subject theme bloomed like a stray Brahms Intermezzi.

Throughout the lengthy first movement, moments of reflection alternated with pages of heroic virtuosity but, from the start of the Adagio, Szulc was aiming at more understated emotions.


Chen laced yet another Intermezzo-like theme around orchestral murmurs, with telling and subtle rubato. By the final evanescent cadenza, it seemed that this was indeed what the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau described as Brahms' final farewell to Schumann.

The Finale was a brilliant affair, especially when it sounds a little as if Bach had strayed into a gypsy camp. It also inspired the perfect encore.

An A flat major Prelude and Fugue from Bach's 48 proved it was indeed possible to find pianistic poetry in winding fugal intricacies.

After interval, Szulc took on Sibelius's popular Fifth Symphony.

Once past its treacherous and slightly unconvincing launch, the Polish conductor caught the ebb and flow of one of the composer's most challenging symphonic journeys.

The Andante mosso showcased orchestral precision, Szulc almost crouching at times to ensure that dynamics were appropriately subdued - the perfect ploy to keep us on tenterhooks for a breathtakingly radiant Finale.

The charming Szulc spoke from the podium twice. His second address was followed by the Sibelian bonus of an elegant Valse Triste - words were unnecessary.