Oxford Philharmonic’s Berlioz and Brahms proves the ideal balm on a cold night

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz and Brahms: Sophie Bevan (soprano), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford 18.1.2024. (CR)

Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra perform in the Sheldonian Theatre © Nick Rutter

Berlioz – Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict; Les nuits d’été, Op.7
Brahms Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73

On a cold January night, Brahms’s most ebullient and outgoing symphony, and Berlioz’s musing on summer nights proved an ideal balm, especially in these pliable performances.

In the cycle of songs, setting poems by Théophile Gautier, Ryan Wigglesworth set a delightfully poised and subdued mood with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra for these haunted reminiscences of past or thwarted love, some of them spectral and morbid. But rather than providing a merely comfortable or anodyne background for Sophie Bevan, conductor and orchestra actively shaded the music so as to provide its own kaleidoscope of subtle tones and colours, like a watercolour painting, tellingly flaring up into brighter beams of light at significant moments. Contrariwise shifts of timbre in the opposite direction, such as the ghostly harmonics for the description of a passing shadow in ‘Au cimetière’, made the listener shudder.

Bevan maintained exemplary control over all six songs, almost always sotto voce but consistently projecting a finely etched phrase and hardly ever becoming crackly, even in the more staccato approach to the sprightly opening song’ Villanelle’. When her voice opened out into a more rounded tone it was done to deliberate effect to emphasise shifts in register or mood within the text, most notably for the more joyful disposition of the last song, ‘L’île inconnue’, where her and the orchestra’s bolder colours dispelled the gloomier shades of the preceding songs. At the concert’s opening, the overture to Berlioz’s last opera, Béatrice et Bénédict, provided a more wryly, ironic take on the vicissitudes of romantic love. The relatively lean sound of the orchestra and restrained used of vibrato instilled a sense of nervousness and caution in its scurrying opening section, broadening out into emotional warmth and accommodation in the slower section, enabling a thawing out in the recapitulation.

Wigglesworth tended to cultivate that trimness of sonority in Brahms’s Symphony No.2, rather than forcing any of the textural heft it undoubtedly encompasses. Again, relatively sparing use of vibrato, and the col legno attack of the violins in the second subject gave the first movement a certain brittle and brisk character, with a richer timbre held back to make a greater effect in the more passionate Adagio second movement. But the antiphonal arrangement of the violins always enabled the violas and cellos to weave a sustained, expressive line within the centre of the music to maintain lyricism and witfulness, joined by winsome solo contributions from horn and oboe in the slow movement.

In the most light-hearted of all Brahms’s symphonic movements, the jollity of the Allegretto came out as much through carefully honed gradations in dynamics and tone colour as from studied articulation or rhythm. Most forceful contrast was unleashed between the relaxed opening phrase of the finale, followed by an explosive, impetuous outburst, but still contained enough so as to come over as consciously witty or even a practical joke, drawing a link with Brahms’s Viennese predecessor Haydn, rather than Beethoven with whose symphonies that od the composer are so often compared. A blazing peroration rightly set the seal on a good-mannered account of the work, drawing attention to the relative novelty that the climax comes almost too late, with cheery triumph in the symphony’s very last seconds.

Curtis Rogers

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