Philharmonia Orchestra/Jac van Steen at Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre – Brahms

Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op.56a
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jac van Steen

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 4 October, 2013
Venue: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, England

Jac van Steen. Photograph: Photograph: Ross CohenMusic at Oxford launched its 30th-anniversary Season in the awesome surrounds of Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Andris Nelsons’s beginning of their touring Brahms cycle. Keen readers will have spotted that Nelsons (in the midst of a run of Richard Strauss’s Elektra at the Royal Opera House) was absent, struck down by a virus the day before. Jac van Steen caught a flight from Amsterdam on this day to be in Oxford.

The overly-generous programme featuring two Brahms symphonies and also the St Anthony Variations heard in this surround had a raw quality: these three masterworks benefited from being heard up-close and personal, thrilling in places, and with a well-behaved audience sitting rapt (even if Wren’s creation has to be the most uncomfortable venue outside of Bayreuth), the experience was communal.

The account of the Variations – despite Brahms’s title, the wind piece which he used as the source of the Theme is not by Joseph Haydn, and it remains unattributed – was very well-played indeed, a Classical air lent to the opening Chorale, and as the Variations ticked by the mood developed into grand Romanticism, the finale’s explosion life-affirming in its stridency, tickled along with flute runs by the ever-dependable Kenneth Smith. With oboist Gordon Hunt this pairing was a joy to hear: delightful birdcalls fluttered through the Third section. The stringent Sixth nodded towards Sturm und Drang, its tempestuousness matched with exhilaration.

The audience’s welcoming applause had not quite finished when van Steen launched into the Third Symphony, its opening measures treated unremittingly, with phrases snatched at and tension high: a high-octane and thunderous opening, absolutely on the con brio mark, with the intensity driven further sky-ward come the return of the exposition. The middle movements had eloquence and poise, with outstanding solos from Richard Hosford (clarinet), Nigel Black (horn) and, again, Hunt and Smith. The ‘victory’, as played-out here in the finale, given with sweep and pin-point clarity, was that the contemplative close was utterly compelling and entirely naturally serene.

More reaching for the skies (and the Sheldonian’s magnificent ceiling, which depicts Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences and expelling ignorance from the University) with the work that took Brahms over twenty years to complete: his First Symphony, given a demonstrative performance. Van Steen’s approach was fairly non-interventionist and made for a fresh-minted listen. The first movement’s invention abounded with surprise, and the glories of the Philharmonia’s strings completely engrossed, as in the finale, too, which had tension in spades, and many felicities, and whose coda was breathlessly dispatched. The conductor’s effort for the final explosions was palpably realised.

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