The BBC National Orchestra of Wales crossed the river to England to deliver an evening of the music of Brahms culminating in the giant Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Op.68. The third installment of the Brahms experience live in concert conducted by their Japanese conductor laureate Tadaaki Otaka. He conducted without a baton and with smaller gestures, but had good control of orchestral sounds. The opening Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 was a little lacklustre and void of energy due to a slower tempo and quieter passages that lacked excitement, but after this Otaka took the reins and brought Brahms to its true vitality. It was clear that Otaka was experienced in working with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and knew how to work with them, but this particular performance felt a little tired, especially towards the end where the cymbals should have resulted in an explosive symphonic ending.

Veronika Eberle © Marco Borggreve
Veronika Eberle
© Marco Borggreve

One of the main problems that this concert suffered from was a problem that frequents the concert scene all too often and that is static programming. It’s great to see works by one composer to get a more in depth idea of their style, but the overture, concerto, symphony layout has become all too predictable for too many concerts. The structure itself has never been very palatable, leaving the longest work until last and letting the soloists go in the interval. The order in which pieces of music are heard affect the way in which they are appreciated and in this particular case, the symphony lost out. In the informative pre-concert talk, Jonathan James described the opening of the Symphony no. 1 as “a giant monster opening its jaws” and told the audience that Brahms didn’t initially want to write a symphony feeling too much pressure attempting to follow on from Beethoven. By the time he had changed his mind, he had resolved that this first symphony had to be gigantic in order to make a statement.

Whilst the overall execution of the symphony was good, it wasn’t a special performance, though the BBC National Orchestra of Wales delivered Brahms’ wish at the Colston Hall by opening the second half of the evening with a powerful punch. The orchestral energy missing from the Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 injected itself into the Symphony no.1 where a refreshed orchestra came back after the interval. The oboe and clarinet solo in the Andante sostenuto underpinned by chugging strings was particularly well performed. The contrast between the sweeping melodies in the strings and punctual rhythms worked well within the orchestra and created a good dynamic balance.

Young German violinist Veronika Eberle showcased herself in this performance with an impressive performance of Brahms’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102 for an unquestionable highlight of the evening. Her instrument is a loaned “Dragonetti” Stradivarius (1700) with a warm resonance that complimented her use of vibrato. Her stage presence was dynamic in a long flowing pastel pink gown in which she moved effortlessly into the opening of the cadenzas playing with confidence and an assurance that was surprising for her youth.

Eberle played alongside Scandanavian cellist Andreas Brantelid, who is a member of the BBC New Generation Artists Scheme and performed on a “Terese” Andreas Guarnerius cello (1665). Also in his late 20s, Brantelid gave a youthful and vibrant show. Where both instruments should have had equal presence on stage and in sound, the violinist was stronger than the cellist. Eberle’s violin projected more and wasn’t muffled by the orchestra. The gutsy third movement of the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, nodding to Brahms’ Hungarian roots contained some fabulous passages on the violin and great conversations between violin and cello. It was in this final ‘Vivace non troppo’ that Brantelid gave his best performance.