Listening last night to the Bern Symphony Orchestra play the Brahms Symphony no. 2 in D major, it struck me that this is music which is relatively straightforward to play well and exceptionally hard to play excellently. Mario Venzago and the orchestra played it well – very well, perhaps – but still left me wanting.

Chloe Hanslip © Benjamin Ealovega
Chloe Hanslip
© Benjamin Ealovega

“Relatively straightforward”, because Brahms’ music exudes melody from every pore, the first two movements displaying cascade after cascade of delicious melodic fragments. Each phrase is a thing of beauty, delicately weighted, its dynamic contour clearly defined so that your ear is satisfied at its end when the baton is passed to the next group of instruments, who move on to another theme or a variation of a preceding one.

But lovely as each fragment could be, I found it hard to get a grip on the work as a whole. When a ten or fifteen second passage is so rich and well rounded in itself, it’s hard to weld those phrases into a twenty minute first movement that maintains a discernible shape. A sense of overall progression from beginning to end eluded me.

The Bern Symphony’s sound revolves around its strings: a big sound, traditionally rounded and full. The cello section impressed especially: the two principals Constantin Negoita and Alexander Kaganovsky are not exactly young musicians, but they played with the visible enthusiasm of kids in a playground. The results were audible: whether bowed or pizzicato, I was wowed time and again by nicely turned cello phrases. The blend of low strings and horns was especially lovely in the chorale-like passages in the first movement of the Brahms.

In contrast, the words “relatively straightforward” shouldn’t be mentioned anywhere near the solo part of the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, a work so technically challenging that it rather defeated the violinist at its 1904 première. Sibelius rewrote the score considerably for the second performance (although it’s not clear that the solo part got any easier). It’s not just that the concerto is laden with fast runs, arpeggios across all four strings, harmonics at speed and a notorious passage of staccato double-stops: it’s that for maximum effect, these have to be synchronised with the orchestral entries. Sibelius had wanted desperately to be a violinist before he gave up and became a composer – you might think the work is his revenge on violinists.

But the results can be magical, starting from the very first bars, a simple violin line rising out of an almost inaudible background in the high strings, developing into an achingly romantic melody after which the orchestration thickens out into a mood of threat and the music becomes more urgent. Chloë Hanslip gave a wonderful blend of ice and fire: this may not be Romanticmusic with a capital R, but Hanslip played it very romantically, with glorious swoops and luscious timbre. For long notes, she often used a technique of starting the note clean and then simultaneously applying both vibrato and an increase in volume, adding depth and character. At many points, the violin has a fast phrase leading up to a held high note in which the solo violin is joined by the orchestra: Hanslip delivered the phrasing of these runs beautifully with intense expression at their ends – albeit not always precisely in time with the orchestral swell.

This may not have been an orchestral performance of the utmost precision – in all of the evening, intonation was spot on, but there were some mistimed entries and things got a little muddy at times – but Hanslip and the Bern Symphony showed just how much there is to love in this concerto, aside from the violin fireworks. The high woodwind introduction to the second movement and the succeeding orchestral build were stunning, as was the rumbustious start to the finale and the highly accented and distinctive dance rhythm that pervaded it. Hanslip obviously enjoys playing this concerto, beaming broadly, her eyes flashing encouragement at the various sections of the orchestra during the passages in which she wasn’t playing.

It’s not often that the Beethoven Symphony no. 8 in F major is relegated to the status of mere curtain raiser, but that’s what it was here. Beethoven infects the audience with life affirming good humour that pervades the piece. It gave Venzago and the Bern Symphony the chance to settle down and show what they are good at: lovely string sound, particularly in the low register, elegant balance with horns, bright high woodwinds. The Eighth made for a very superior curtain raiser – but for me, the work I will remember and want to be hearing again is the romance and Nordic passion of the Sibelius.