Eduard Hanslick had a sharp tongue and an even sharper pen. The critic savagely dismissed Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as “music that stinks”, while his verdict on a two-piano play-through of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was “I had the feeling throughout that I was being beaten up by two incredible, intelligent people”. Harsh first verdicts indeed on two masterpieces, so I dread to think what Hanslick would have made of last night’s Philharmonia programme where these works were given variable performances under Karl-Heinz Steffens.

Esther Yoo © Marco Borggreve
Esther Yoo
© Marco Borggreve

The Tchaikovsky came off better, thanks to the sensitive playing of American-Korean violinist Esther Yoo. The gorgeous, dark tone of her 1704 ‘Prince Obolensky’ Stradivarius was a constant delight, suitably veiled in the Canzonetta (where the mute is applied throughout) and vivacious in the finale. Apart from the occasional knee bend and bob of her pony-tail, Yoo maintained great stillness on the platform, with no amateur dramatics or body contortions. Hers was an affectionate account of the concerto, the first movement’s ardent melody nobly phrased. Yoo, the youngest-ever winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2012, is one of the most promising violinists I’ve heard in recent years. She never forces her tone and allows the music to speak for itself.

Steffens ensured the Philharmonia accompanied sensitively, the progress stately and rather missing the impetuosity and fire the work demands. Lovingly turned woodwind phrases in the conversational second movement were the high point, but the cossack dance of a finale – condemned by Hanslick as bringing to mind the “brutal and and wretched vulgarity of a Russian holiday” – was disappointingly tepid.

The ponderous nature of Steffens’ approach had been apparent from the very first note of the Egmont Overture which opened the programme. Beethoven wrote a fermata – a pause of unspecified length on a note or rest – over the first chord, but the conductor clung on so long he seemed to have stalled at the first hurdle. From then on the overture lurched uncomfortably between extreme tempi, Steffens’ baton not so much beating time as gesturing imperiously, until whipping up an exciting finale.

The only excitement in Brahms’ Fourth Symphony came in the Allegro giocoso third movement which went with a bluff swagger, Steffens swinging his arms furiously from side to side. Elsewhere, this was a stolid, over-emphatic account, although played with tremendous vigour by the orchestra. Never has Paul Dukas’ waspish description of Brahms’ music as “too much beer and beard” been so deserving. Tempi were stodgy and ponderous, as if the composer were strolling back from his favourite inn, the Red Hedgehog, after a particularly heavy lunch. Part of the problem lay in the vast number of strings employed, sixty of them often swamping woodwind lines beneath their glossy sheen. The Philharmonia brass was especially imposing introducing the fourth movement, which Brahms treats as a chewy passacaglia, adapting the chaconne from the closing movement of Bach's cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. During the variations, proceedings nearly ground to a halt on more than one occasion. Brahms needs nimbler feet than this account permitted.