What are the signs of the Christmas season moving into full flow? A proliferation of mince pies and festive puddings gracing the groaning shelves of the national supermarkets? Bushes entangled with hundreds of lights, earnestly flashing their festive morse code greeting? For many it’s the familiar Christmas music; the old warhorses of Santa Baby et al blaring from the shop speakers. In concert halls, there are a few musical certainties in December: performances of Handel’s Messiah are guaranteed, for example, but you can usually be sure that certain favourites from Tchaikovsky will be on show too. Jac van Steen’s concert with the Philharmonia was undoubtedly in the festive mould; extracts from Eugene Onegin provided a more serious first half that balanced the second’s highlights from Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

Veronika Dzhioeva © A Bolkvadze
Veronika Dzhioeva
© A Bolkvadze

The Philharmonia opened with Eugene Onegin’s Polonaise, the glorious opening of the third act that effortlessly brings to mind the pomp and ceremony of Tsarist Russia. Van Steen captured the stateliness of the work while maintaining a palpable undercurrent of joie de vivre – an energetic and assured manner on the podium indicating that routine complacency was unlikely in this concert. Woodwind textures were light and feathery against brass that was sturdy, but unaggressive. Joining them on stage to give the Letter Scene – that moment in the first act when Tatyana admits her infatuation with Onegin and pens him an ill-fated love letter – was Veronika Dzhioeva, who sang with warm, passionate soprano. Diction was very appealing, a charming Slavic colour to it, and her higher register was generally in good shape; occasionally a little rough, but not worryingly so. In terms of characterisation, Dzhioeva brought plenty of intensity, applying colour and shade at the right moments, but she didn’t entirely capture Tatyana at that precise stage of her evolution in the opera. That girlish flutter, the innocent naivety of youth was absent in the velvety, mature voice that seemed much more appropriate to the opera’s finale, where she sang opposite baritone Tommi Hakala, and showed that she knew the right vocal formula for bitter anguish. Hakala seemed a little subdued, the top of his voice dim and sounding slightly strained until his final moments. The preceding waltz had one of the rare dodgy moments of the concert for the brass with one or two fluffs early on.

Abandoning Onegin to a life of miserable bachelorhood, we were steered into ballet. Here was unabashed romanticism in the finest tradition; van Steen consistently drew a sound from the Philharmonia that was thick and velvety. Highlights included the Waltz from Swan Lake, which van Steen paced well and brought to it a fine combination of delicacy and force. Woodwind were keen throughout, and the percussionists, scrabbling about, had plenty of energy. Van Steen brought the finale to a quivering climax, avoiding an overly brisk tempo that let the drama of the piece expand. It was sad, in a way, that they opted to do this before The Nutcracker, which is just as tuneful, but lacks the raw force that makes the finale of Swan Lake such a powerful way to end a concert. Still, there were rich pickings to be had from the selection of excerpts from Nutcracker: skilful pizzicato in the Chinese Dance, teasing brass and shimmering strings. Heidi Krutzen on the harp was a constant delight throughout.

It was never going to be the most revolutionary of concerts, but as the musical equivalent of a plate of mince pies and a flagon of mulled wine, it was very palatable. A splendid way to start one’s Christmas celebrations.