Striking a workable balance in the performance of Brahms symphonies is no easy matter, and on Saturday night at the Barbican, Mariss Jansons came closer than most to solving a whole host of interpretative problems. Sonority is an essential prerequisite, especially in the First Symphony's opening pages, where basses, bassoons and horns - all forte - approximate the sound of an organ pedal. The Oslo Philharmonic gave a handsome account of itself, with plenty of pressure from the strings, powerful brass and an unfaltering timpani pulse. The switch to allegro brought marked surges in the string line, powerful pizzicatos and a handful of added dynamics. Jansons' strategy omitted the first-movement repeat but included a subtly worked build-up to the movement's stormy centre, where sensitive phrasing proved preferable to the usual option of broadening the pace.
The Andante sostenuto slow movement was remarkable for its sense of line and expressive generosity. Again, the string choirs excelled and a feeling of urgency kept the arguments focused. In the third movement, Jansons made a beeline for the dramatic central section, building a breathless crescendo that made renewed sense of the climactic reminder of the symphony's opening. My only reservations concerned the Finale, especially near the beginning, where the string players are asked to accelerate their pizzicatos "little by little" and Jansons pushed a tad too hard. A little later, Brahms summons the spectre of Beethoven Nine with one of his noblest melodies and, once into the fray, Jansons took animato as a cue virtually to double the tempo.
Interesting ideas, and effective enough to draw an enthusiastic response from the audience. Then a pair of contrasted encores: the delicate "Haydn" Serenade (really by Hoffstetter) and a wildly accelerating "Farandole" from Bizet's L'ArlÃ©sienne. Before Brahms, the soprano Barbara Bonney tailed a sequence of Grieg songs with Skogen Sofver (The Forest Sleeps) by Hugo AlfvÃ©n, a great favourite of the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling.
Bonney's Grieg "quintet" - "Solveig's Song", "Cradle Song", "From Monte Pincio", "A Swan" and "Spring" - was at once loveable and lived in, a bewitching trail of dreams acted out with total commitment and ravishing soft tones. Jansons' accompaniments were models of discernment, always at the service of the singer. Quite why he chose to open the concert with a half-hour pot pourri of themes from Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten is anyone's guess - save for the obvious value of showcasing his Oslo orchestra in all its glory. Still, the Brahms in particular was memorable, and if you missed the concert and need confirmation of Jansons' Brahmsian credentials, buy his terrific Olso Philharmonic recording of the Second and Third Symphonies, on Simax. Let's hope the First and Fourth Symphonies follow ere long.