With a last-minute change of conductor from the excitable Andris Nelsons to the more reserved Jac van Steen, one might have forgiven a not exactly revolutionary performance. Last night’s concert was meant to be the first half of Nelsons’ Brahms cycle with the Philharmonia in the Sheldonian Theatre, part of Music at Oxford’s series, but illness unfortunately prevented him from performing. Van Steen’s lack of preparation meant it was going to be a big task to offer any new interpretations of these orchestral staples as well as preventing an all-Brahms programme from becoming uniform. However, after some reassurance from the Philharmonia, it was not going to be allowed to a problem.
Before diving full-pelt into the symphonies, the evening began with the lighter St Anthony Variations, or Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The winds were certainly not caught unawares as they opened the concert with an astonishingly warm sound, getting their intonation right immediately. With the large number of repeats written in, the variations threatened to drag. But van Steen forbade any monotony. Through his expert sense of phrasing and by bringing out hidden voices, he ensured continued interest. Despite Brahms’ limited orchestral palate (especially in comparison to some of his contemporaries, such as Liszt and Wagner), van Steen produced a kaleidoscope of orchestral colours.
Yet the Philharmonia must be equally commended. Van Steen’s conducting during the variations was understated – wearing tails certainly did not impinge on his movement. It was as if being called in at the last minute meant that he did not entirely trust the orchestra, since he gave them every single beat. Nevertheless, the violins swirled feverishly in the fourth variation, growing through crescendos and pulling their audience into their sumptuousness. While their playing was doubtlessly expressive, the violins’ staccato lines in the second variation might have been articulated better. The finale somehow opened in a subtly grand manner, which was the ideal place to grow from. From here, the eventual development into a rich, full-orchestral sound made the entrance of the triangle (the only piece of percussion in the whole concert other than timpani) well deserved.
The following Third Symphony might be characterised as a symphony of anticlimaxes. All the movements end quietly, and its build-ups seem to die down too quickly. Van Steen took full advantage of its dramatic potential: rising to fiery climaxes, and then shamelessly taking them away, refusing to give away too much too early on. Meanwhile, the strings continued to reveal the many characters they are capable of: from the ferocious and bold, to the sweet or delicate. The central section of the first movement is one of the few places where the violas are allowed to shine – and boy did they relish it. Hearing their dark, resonant voices coming through from the middle of the orchestra was a delight. By the finale it was clear that van Steen felt more comfortable conducting this orchestra. The energy he mustered, helped by the magnificent brass and the new colour they offered, was so astounding that it felt like it could never stop. Yet after all of the momentum generated, the symphony’s close was disappointing. Although it was quiet, it could have been drawn out for longer. But for a symphony of anticlimaxes, this might have been van Steen’s (and Brahms’) point.
That Brahms’ First Symphony was nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth” seems bizarre, as to me the work reveals Brahms as a full-blown romantic. During the first movement, the Philharmonia brought out the darker side of its minor key, a darkness that Beethoven only sometimes hinted at. The slow second movement, with its tentative and longing string playing, was oddly reminiscent of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde prelude. It was a new aspect of Brahms that came as a surprise.
By the finale, van Steen was openly enjoying conducting such a responsive orchestra. The concentration in both players and conductor during the pizzicato build-ups translated to a huge amount of concentration from the audience. Finally, van Steen let go of his restraint, entrusting the Philharmonia with the reins when the moment was right. Any disappointment at the close of the Third was now forgotten. Starting with rumbling timpani and some of the most satisfying brass playing that I have heard, van Steen and the Philharmonia brought it to a gloriously and overwhelmingly loud close.
Although the Philharmonia will return with a different conductor to complete the cycle in January, if their playing is anything like last’s night it is certain to be a success. Whoever their conductor is, the Philharmonia are an orchestra working together. But they are not a machine-like single entity, which van Steen went to great lengths to prove. It made for an exciting concert that presented new ways of hearing these staples of the repertoire. Nelsons certainly has a difficult act to follow.