Brahms’ Variations on the St Anthony Chorale is the composer’s doff of the cap to Haydn. The harmonic world, certainly, is richer and more chromatic than ever Haydn would have countenanced, but the form of theme-and-variations is there, Haydn’s (or rather, probably Pleyel’s) original chorale never quite disappears from the musical material, and there is some clever use of 18th-century techniques such as passacaglia and inverted counterpoint.
The Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen delivered a nuanced account of it that was light on its feet and kept the interest and attention high in what can feel like a bit of an academic exercise. The two Vivace movements, for example, were tightly controlled for speed and dynamic, and in the Grazioso Brahms’ signature orchestral colouring of this graceful minuet was pleasingly accentuated.
The Prom’s principal work was Bruckner’s fourth symphony. Bruckner can be a divider; he had an obsessive-compulsive streak to his personality, and it’s tempting to point to this in his symphonic music. He is certainly reluctant to let go of a musical idea, and tends to hammer away at it without much direction before moving on to another (in the words of Brahms ‘symphonic boa-constrictors’).
The fourth is perhaps the most approachable, with its jolly ‘hunting’ scherzo, and Salonen and the orchestra did everything they could to keep the interest up. There was plenty of dynamic contrast in all movements from the slow build at the opening of the first to the massive brass and busy strings at the close of the fourth. The second movement gave us some cleverly refined cello playing that was both rich yet icy at the same time, and the pauses that Salonen insisted on in the viola tune were nicely judged. The bubbly horns of the scherzo were a tightly controlled exercise in moving from a trot to a gallop.
The brass chorus in the symphony can be its downfall, as Bruckner’s massive statements for trumpets trombones and tuba, while thrilling in a five-minute extract, can wear the listener down after the nth appearance. This is particularly true in the final movement, which can feel like a conversation between two attractive yet dull people, each repeating the same idea (the brass constantly expostulating the same statement, the rest of the orchestra reiterating its view in prolix variations). Salonen, however, insisted on variety of brass attack, and he and the Philharmonia did a great deal to alleviate the general ennui, again, through sensitive use of dynamic and texture (the variations in string tone, for example, made for several contrasts between discomfiting edginess and warm radiance).
It was left to Richard Strauss to provide a voluptuous contrast to stolid form, and the performance of his Opus 27 Four Songs by Lise Davidsen just before the interval made the whole evening worthwhile. Davidsen’s voice has the qualities of the best of alcohol-laced desserts: it is rich and creamy, sweet and strong. In the troubled Ruhe meine Seele she used it effortlessly to point up the contrasts between light and dark, with some solid lower notes and a diaphanous quality above the stave.
Cäcilie, full of heft and swirl and irresistible Straussyness was over all too quickly to make room for Heimliche Aufforderung, a jolly drinking song whose final, clingy stanza gave Davidsen the chance to produce notes of gloriously quiet power. Morgen was as pianissimo as you’d want, Salonen and the orchestra providing a pale canvas on which Davidsen and the violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay were able to outline the image of blissful new love in all the time they needed.