The San Francisco Symphony recently returned from an exhausting six-city, ten-concert tour of Asia and now enter the month of December with a selection of seasonal, festive performances. Before decking the halls of Davies Hall, however, they found time for another offering of classical excellence on Sunday afternoon with a superbly balanced program of chamber works by Harbison, Dohnányi and Brahms performed by members of the orchestra.

The first work of the afternoon, Twilight Music by American composer John Harbison, was scored for the rather unique combination of violin, horn and piano. I am always fascinated when composers delve into small chamber works that introduce audiences to the uncustomary overlapping of such vastly differing sonorities. The composer actually admits himself that “the horn and violin have little in common”, and it is through this very concept that the work excels. The violin offers the opening remark, followed shortly by a muted horn call somewhere in the distance. Supported by subtle colouring from the piano, the piece begins to unfold as the same ideas are pitched back and forth in differing fashion by violin and horn, highlighting contrasting sounds of the same musical ideas.

The work is essentially intervallic but despite the somewhat angular contours, the overarching musical line is constantly buoyed by successful pacing and effective dynamic contrast. From the outset, horn player Nicole Cash performed with sensitivity and impeccable clarity, offering a diverse palette of colours. Particularly difficult passages were handled with complete ease as she effortlessly traversed a wide range of intervallic leaps. Although much of the work is written in a fashion that makes statements through contrasting sounds, Ms Cash blended masterfully with the ensemble and was never obtrusive. One of the more magical moments featured in the third movement, during which the horn exhales a series of breathy, soft, low notes accompanied by ominous piano oscillations and downward violin glissandi. I found Twilight Music to be a highly successful piece and a consummate example of how to write for such differing instrumental combinations.

The second work on the program offered a delightfully entertaining reprieve by means of Ernst von Dohnányi’s Serenade in C major for string trio. The music of this Hungarian composer (1877–1960) is steeped in an admiration of the more traditional music of such composers as Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák despite, at the time, a more radical exploration of new musical ground by the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. This piece was written in 1902–03 and is scored for violin, viola and cello. It is a wonderful romp through five movements of differing characters, which the performers tastefully stylized. I particularly appreciated the interpretation of the opening march, which set the tone for the entire piece, assured and distinct but with a spritely playfulness alluding to the movements to come. Of particular note was the Scherzo movement, which was performed at lightning speed, following a calm, introspective Romanza. Whilst some may consider Dohnányi a conservative traditionalist, his harmonic language was distinct and unique, despite the obvious influences, which is overtly apparent in the yearning, weaving contrapuntal lines of the forth movements. Dohnányi’s Serenade in C major served as a sound answer to John Harbison’s Twilight Music and a fitting set-up for the substantial work that was to follow in the second half.

Brahms’ masterpiece, the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 was undoubtedly the heavy hitter of the afternoon’s program and the musicians were more than equal to the undertaking of such a significant work. The origins of the F minor Quintet are interesting: the original scoring for two violins, viola and two cellos was completed, revised and then rescored for two pianos, before it was rewritten again for its current combination of instruments. This robust, 40-minute work, which explores a whole host of moods, was given an equally strong performance by the musicians. Yefim Bronfman performed at the piano with a remarkable degree of sensitivity at all times, coming in and out of the background when required. The piano never once felt overpowering, nor overpowered by the rest of the ensemble. Such works by Brahms can often lack clarity, losing sense and direction amidst the dark, thick textures of the writing, but the members of this ensemble excelled in their handling of balance at all times.

The combination of a superbly balanced program and sublime musicality resulted in a concert that was hugely satisfying and highly enjoyable from beginning to end. The afternoon performances were a testament to the fine musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, and with chamber skills such as these at their disposal, it is no wonder that the orchestra offers a series in which they can showcase intimate chamber performances of this quality.