The opening concert of the Oxford Philharmonic Chamber Series offered three contrasting facets of Austro-German high Romanticism, taking the audience on a journey which spanned, curiously enough, Richard Strauss' entire lifetime. From the harmonically nebulous opening of Brahms' String Sextet in G major, written in 1864, to the contrapuntal outpouring of Metamorphosen, the Soloists of the Oxford Philharmonic encapsulated each world with consummate ease.

Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss

There were numerous examples of the ensemble's sensitivity to colour in the Brahms sextet, not least in the subtle harmonic and registral transformations of the opening theme. Throughout the first movement, the overall pacing ensured that the melodic material had an appropriate amount of gentle Schwung to carry the listener along. It was the inner two movements where the six players displayed their full range of expression to wonderful effect, particularly in the quietly unsettling opening section of the Scherzo which is then rudely interrupted by the rustic Presto giocoso. An image of a thigh-slapping barn dance may have come to mind at this moment thanks to the exuberant energy flying off the stage.

The slow movement was, on the whole, sensitively shaped with the players opting for maximum contrast either side of the dense counterpoint in the more furious central variation. Only in the return to the opening Adagio tempo was there a slight loss of focus and energy, but the ensemble compensated with a wonderfully sustained final climax and coda. The finale began with a sizzling energy in the opening sprung rhythms and the players' unerring sense of line ensured there was a consistent focus in the more lyrical sections.

Webern's Langsamer Satz, composed in 1905 while still a composition student under Schoenberg, was a curious inclusion in a programme already suffused with heavy doses of late (and ultra-late) Austro-German Romanticism. As a case study in Austrian musical juvenilia around 1900, it would come as no surprise that this single movement for string quartet contains more than a few nods in the direction of Brahms, Wagner and even Mahler. The quartet's performance was finely judged overall, although their decision to inordinately lengthen the three very brief pauses which Webern inserted between sections seemed somewhat contrived, adding unnecessary solemnity to a relatively slim movement.

For the second half, the ensemble performed the septet arrangement of Strauss' Metamorphosen, the set-up which the composer had originally used when he started sketching ideas in the Summer of 1944. Although this realisation by Rudolf Leopold may lack the sheer force and weight of the version for 23 string players, the chance to hear Strauss' contrapuntal writing more clearly is a significant advantage. It was in this department that the septet struck an ideal balance between clarity of texture and the necessary expressive momentum needed to make sense of what could sound, in less assured hands, like an unwieldy structure.

All seven players paced the emotional temperature of Metamorphosen admirably so that the climax, which appears roughly three-quarters of the way through the work, made a truly visceral impact in the intimate atmosphere of the Holywell Room. The most distinctive element of this performance was the fluidity with which the players came in and out of focus in their multiple roles as soloists, duettists and ensemble members. This was also coupled with an impressive transparency and unanimity of expression in moments of rupture or structural breakthrough, such as the sudden rhythmic and harmonic jolt from the whole ensemble as it launches into the final build-up before the climax. All these elements came together to form a stirring account which concluded a very fine evening of chamber music.