The Philharmonia Orchestra did us a great favour by securing the Dutch conductor Jac van Steen to replace the indisposed Andris Nelsons. He clearly has a close identification with Brahms and the Philharmonia immersed us in familiar music while revealing its astonishing variety, a long way from the strenuous, rather plump sound I grew up with. My ears immediately pricked up with the woodwinds’ wiry, open-air sound in the opening ‘St Anthony chorale’, and through all nine variations on a supposed-by-Haydn tune the Philharmonia seduced us with the range of Brahms’s scoring in all its bluster and delicacy, woodwinds floating like oil on the surface of the third variation, horn-calls bouncing athletically through the sixth, a translucent separation of string sound in the seventh, the sequence wrapped up in a sublime account of the chaconne finale that entirely honoured the scope of Brahms’s imagination.
There was the same subtle attention to sound in an exceptional performance of the Double Concerto, which van Steen conducted with an enthralling grasp of its understated drama, his approach seeding a haunting inwardness to the playing of Tanja Tetzlaff and her brother Christian, appropriate because violinist and cellist have a singleness of purpose, with Brahms glorying in their particular resonance. There is dialogue and imitation between the soloists, but they are not pitted against each other. Tanja’s soft-grained timbre and lyrical refinement of attack bonded with the inexhaustible finesse and flexibility of Christian’s playing. You can almost see the music rippling through him, so acute is his response, and his heavenly playing somehow combined austerity with white-hot passion. The caress of the soloists’ unison in the slow movement had an unsettling, secretive quality that extended into the gypsy finale. With soloists and conductor of this calibre and in marked sympathy with each other, this was a performance to treasure, and Christian Tetzlaff’s endlessly nuanced virtuosity and immersion in the music were unforgettable. The soloists’ encore was a movement from Kodály’s Duo Sonata.
In Symphony No.3 – the subtle immensity of which never ceases to amaze – van Steen and the Philharmonia found its balancing point between classicism, reticence and German romanticism. The conductor’s discreet but meticulous control of Brahms’s characteristic phrase elongation and rhythm-blurring lifted the already superb playing on to another level, and was executed with breathtaking, airy pliancy. The passage before the first-movement reprise glowed with mystery, and van Steen negotiated his way through the psychological complexities of the finale with particular insight.