Emotional Brahms and Roof-Raising Bruckner from Oxford Philomusica

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Bruckner: Yuri Zhislin (violin), Peter Adams (cello), Jennifer France (soprano), Katharine Goeldner (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Darren Jeffery (bass), Philharmonia Chorus, Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 29.11.2014(CR)

Brahms: Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102
Bruckner: Te Deum

Living and working in Vienna in the second half of the 19th century, both Brahms and Bruckner are two composers often considered to represent opposing poles in the development of music in that period, the former continuing the essentially Classical tradition of logical, symphonic argument, the latter advancing a more grandiloquent Romantic disposition in his colossal symphonies. In reality it is probably these composers’ admirers and detractors who exaggerated the contrasts between them, exacerbating the ‘narcissism of minor difference’ to borrow the phrase of another great Viennese figure of the next generation, Sigmund Freud.

 In both of these performances there were echoes of their respective composers’ symphonic achievements. Particularly in the Brahms, the impression was far from that of a cold Classicist paying more attention to form, as the tremendous surges of passion drawn by Marios Papdapoulos from the Oxford Philomusica testified to a spirit of huge emotional capacity. The transitions to more tender and reserved passages sometimes sounded a little contrived or awkward. But whether in extroverted or introverted music, the OP often created deeply expressive textures which were redolent of Wagner.

 The soloists were drawn from the OP itself, and offered a somewhat curious contrast – Peter Adams’s cello solo seemed like the gruff elder brother of Yuri Zhislin’s far sweeter-toned contribution on the violin. But they certainly worked well together and with the orchestra, often sounding more like the concertino of a concerto grosso – particularly in the lyrical second movement – rather than soloists opposed to the orchestra.

 There was a richness of sound in the slow movement, like clotted cream, but in terms of tempo Papadopoulos pressed on so that it did not become clogged. Indeed, a little more space to breathe would have been welcome, but better that than allow the music to become saccharine or sentimental. Again, the finale was remorseless, conveying the vigour of this gipsy-style rondo, though it could perhaps have been lighter and more humorous.

 Joined by the Philharmonic Chorus and four vocal soloists for Bruckner’s Te Deum, there was also no threat of this performance becoming underpowered. Rightly, the monolithic acclamations of God’s majesty and eternity were ecstatic and roof-raising. But contrasts were also well drawn, for instance in the ‘Te ergo quaesumus’ movement where Thomas Hobb’s tenor solo was beautifully lyrical whilst the solo violin sounded sweetly amorous, or at the opening of the final ‘In te, Domine, speravi’ section, where there was notable levity in the vocal soloists’ ensemble. Although these soloists’ appearances were brief, their contributions were expressive, particularly in evoking the vulnerability of the individual believer in the awe of God’s presence, for example in the almost gaunt sequences at ‘et rege eos et extolle illos in aeternum’, which are borrowed from Bruckner’s motet Christus factus est. Unfortunately Darren Jeffery was not quite secure tonally in his solo at this point.

 The Philharmonia Chorus were on fine form, their separate choral lines clearly etched in the more contrapuntal passages, and the ringing sonority of the upper voices in the bolder homophonic passages matching the blazing ranks of the brass instruments. Almost needless to say, the sopranos’ reaching up to the top C of the final climax was the magnificent apex of a fine performance, underpinned by fluid but convincing tempi from Papadopoulos. With the chorus’s stamina, and the weight and musical presence offered by the OP, it would be a great pleasure to hear a future collaboration in the Missa Solemnis.

 Curtis Rogers

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