The second concert of the Philharmonia’s Brahms cycle saw Brahms’ orchestra at its richest and most full-blooded. Alongside the burnished, glowing colours of the Haydn Variations were placed the autumnal glow of the Third Symphony and the Concerto for Violin and Cello, Brahms’ final orchestral work, with sibling soloists Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff. With an orchestra as marvellous as the Philharmonia, there is really precious little that can go wrong, even more so under the watchful eye of Jac van Steen, standing in for Andris Nelsons. Van Steen, reserved but authoritative in gesture, beamed for most of the concert, and an immaculately detailed – never clinical – sound from the orchestra reflected the loving care with which he approached some of Brahms’ most appealing music.

Philharmonia Orchestra  ©  Benjamin Ealovega
Philharmonia Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

It must be said, though, that the Double Concerto suffered by comparison to the two works that surrounded it, despite a very committed performance by Tetzlaffs and orchestra alike. Although containing moments of great beauty, it lacks the (purposefully misleading) impression of an organic flow of musical inspiration that makes the Variations and Symphony so wonderful to listen to.

Stodgy, repetitive ideas cannot be helped however good the performance, of course, but the Tetzlaffs made as good an effort as one could ask for. As one might expect, there is natural chemistry between them, and a real sense of musical communication, bringing off perfectly the almost improvisatory, musing to-and-fro of ideas which make the best parts of the first movement so irresistible. With the Philharmonia accompanying adeptly, the two soloists never sounded weak against Brahms’ heavy orchestration, filling the hall without ever sounding forced, and with a unison sound easily as full as the resplendent horn and bassoon which open the slow movement. A rapturous reception led to an encore: the Presto from the finale of Kodály’s Duo Sonata, a Bartók-esque extravaganza of folky rhythm and timbre which pushes the technique of both instruments to the limit. Despite this, both sounded absolutely at home here, Christian in particular absolutely convincing through even the weirdest turn of melody or rhythm.

Having followed the Haydn Variations as they were played here, though, the Double Concerto never really had much hope, however brilliant the Tetzlaffs were. From the opening van Steen’s masterly control was obvious. With an incredibly clear, balanced texture, graceful, rich, but never over-loud, Luke Whitehead’s contrabassoon was allowed just a sliver more presence in the tone; not enough to be inelegant, but rounding out the bass with its distinctive colour. This sort of micro-management was characteristic of van Steen’s interpretation, balancing fairly brisk and uncompromising tempi with eloquent manipulation of detail, without ever losing sight of the character in question, be it whirling gaiety as in Variation 5 or Baroque grace in Variation 7.

It’s common to describe an orchestra playing to a high standard as a “well-oiled machine”, but the Philharmonia never sounded mechanical; as with the Tetzlaffs, everything sounded spontaneous and organic, as it should in Brahms, who disguises brilliant compositional flair with an extremely dynamic musical surface. The strings must once again come in for praise for the range of colours they found. From soaring, ecstatic ascents to shadowy whispering, everything was inch-perfect and though they clearly loved the sound they made, van Steen never let it obscure interest in other sections, or vice versa. Nigel Black’s horn section were deliciously subtle in music that invites rather more enthusiasm than is necessary or appropriate, but they always stayed well within the bounds of immaculately measured and astonishingly clear textures. A masterclass in both playing and directing.

Van Steen’s control of the orchestra slipped somewhat for the Third Symphony, as a few ensemble lapses clearly showed, particularly between the horns and the rest of the orchestra. This never prevented the character of the music coming through, though, and the Dutch conductor’s interpretation was one that emphasised character above all else, as well as showing a clear respect for Brahms’ masterly construction. Despite flowing tempi once again, there was always time to be taken over this or that turn of phrase as the emotional world shifted, and Brahms’ miraculous colours were clearly displayed, most movingly at the close, as the strings rustle like wind in the forest, whilst wind and brass sing a solemn but uplifted chorale.

Aristocratic without being stodgy, van Steen’s reading was traditional – the Allegretto third movement was definitely not allegretto – but perfectly formed. I must again congratulate principal horn Nigel Black on some highly expressive solos, particularly the transcendent vision of alpine harmony in the first movement’s development. However, the real highlight was, once again, contrabassoon Luke Whitehead, whose subtle playing in a thankless role was only emphasised by delicate shading from a conductor whose control and understanding of Brahms’ orchestra were admirable, and clearly driven by a deep love for the sound it makes.

Philharmonia: Andris Nelsons - Brahms Cycle 2George Slater-Walker reviews the Philharmonia with Jac Van Steen, Christian Tetzlaff and Tanja Tetzlaff playing Brahms Third Symphony, Haydn Variations and Double Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall4