As an opera house fit for a Ring – Simon Rattle’s first, to be precise, with Die Walküre its inaugural production in 2007 – the Grand Théâtre de Provence also does a passable impersonation of a purpose-built concert hall. Acoustic panels that turn the stage into a platform blend naturally with the surrounding architecture to provide the Festival de Pâques, the Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival, with a flagship venue for its ambition to rival Salzburg.

Paavo Järvi conducts the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen © Caroline Doutre
Paavo Järvi conducts the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
© Caroline Doutre

In the closing days of a fortnight that has included visits from the LSO, the Vienna State Opera and the Russian National Orchestra, Paavo Järvi brought his Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen to the party and scored a palpable popular hit. Aimez-vous Brahms? For anyone who thought they didn’t, this sharp, disciplined band will have made converts.

There were only two works: the Violin Concerto in D major and the First Symphony. Conducting a contingent of slightly fewer than 50 players, with divided violins and a cheek-by-jowl disposition, the elegant Estonian maestro took a surprisingly big-boned approach in both works. The strings, who numbered just 10, 8, 6, 6 and 4, had bloom enough for late Mahler, let alone this pair of romantic giants.

Young German violinist Veronika Eberle gave a passionate reading of the concerto. Her instrument seemed embedded within her, like an organic attachment to her own voicebox, and she all but sang her way through it. Eberle’s technical engagement throughout the epic first movement culminated in a cadenza that she played like a dance, with tempo choices that were both unfamiliar and revelatory, before swooning her way to a dreamy coda.

After that ocean of busy string work, the extended passage for oboe solo and woodwind that opens the central Adagio serves as an aural sorbet. It was exquisitely played, although the movement as a whole passed without incident either good or bad. Neither the soloist nor conductor had much to say so it wandered – as, for the only time in an otherwise invigorating concert, did my mind. Thank goodness for a finale that introduced a burst of fire and a hurtling sense of purpose.

Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen © Caroline Doutre
Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
© Caroline Doutre

Järvi shuffled his pack slightly for the C minor Symphony, with a change of principal oboe and a new timpanist, but the orchestral palette remained generous and the dense note-forest of Brahms’s introductory Allegro opened up to the ear. The First is a noble symphony but it is thickly scored; yet the Bremen players’ journey through the composer’s belated first foray into symphonic writing (if one excludes the first Piano Concerto, which began life as an aborted draft of a symphony) unpicked its arguments with technical aplomb.

The slow movement brings a welcome leavening of the orchestral textures, and in Järvi’s hands it felt like a pause for breath and a brief respite from virtuosic display. This, though, returned in spades for the third movement, marked Un poco allegretto e grazioso but in reality a busy scherzo with tuttis galore.

Järvi’s stealth segue into the majestic finale was startling for its casual delivery, more the idle turn of a page than a change of mood, yet it heralded the evening’s climax in more ways than one. Through a small miracle of dynamics the conductor launched into the Beethovenian Big Tune with something approaching daintiness; but he was only pacing it. Exhilaration lay ahead and before long he gripped the auditorium in a whirl of enveloping elation. It was an ending if not to die for then at least to stand for, and stand they did.

****1