That musical philosopher Nietzsche praised composers who used strict traditional structures yet remained free spirits able to dance in their formal “fetters”.
Brahms in his fourth symphony provides the perfect example. In the finale he uses the baroque form of the passacaglia with an interlocking series of 30 variations on a theme derived from Bach. It ought to reek of musty musical textbooks and midnight oil. Instead Brahms rattles his chains with romantic ardour.
A performance stands or falls by the conductor’s ability to balance form and fervour. With too much control comes Kapellmeister dullness, too little and it degenerates into sprawling self-indulgence.
Andris Nelsons was judicious to near-perfection. The strings had earlier shown they were on top form in a wondrously rapt Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin. In the Brahms finale they surged and carolled threatening to overwhelm the formal constraints but were held back by a hairsbreadth.
Nelsons is adept at the big sweeping moments but quieter details like Marie-Christine Zupancic’s ethereal flute lines were never allowed to be obscured. Pacing was excellent with a tender andante which never sagged and a high-stepping volatile scherzo: from first to last a really memorable performance.
The young Ukrainian violinist Valeriy Sokolov excelled in the first and last movements of Sibelius’s concerto. Warm rich playing, notes pinged in the middle, rapid double stopping that really sounded like two instruments and all the rest of the virtuoso armoury was on display. Unfortunately the tender and poetic adagio sounded rather pedestrian.