In June 1863, Johannes Brahms wrote to a friend, 'My love for Schubert is a very serious one, probably just because it is not a fleeting fancy. Where is genius like his, which soars aloft so boldly and surely, where we then see the first few enthroned?'
These are high words of praise from anyone let alone Brahms himself. But it was just another example of Brahms' lifelong admiration of Franz Schubert, after learning piano under one of Schubert's close friends and collecting memorabilia of Schubert's as well. It only seems fitting the two would end up nearby in the Central Cemetery in Vienna.
The chance to hear the fantastic Soloists of the Oxford Philharmonic perform Schubert's String Quintet in C major followed by Brahms' String Sextet No 1 in B flat minor at the Ashmolean, no less, was a fascinating chance to hear Schubert's influence on Brahms.
Schubert's String Quintet was his last chamber work, written in 1828 two months before his death and not performed until 1850, has since gained the reputation as a masterpiece of chamber music. When Brahms composed his String Sextet in 1860, Schubert's Quintet would have been fresh in Brahms' mind and the influence shows. While perhaps not as radical and innovative as Schubert's piece, there is a sense of Brahms building on the previous work.
Perhaps the best aspect of the performance was the setting in the Ashmolean museum. Because of the unconventional performance space, the acoustics weren't perfect, and the arrangement of the chairs in the hall on a flat surface caused the rows to stretch far back, leaving latecomers without any view of the soloists (a good tip would be to show up at least a half hour early to see the performers the best).
In most cases, this would be quite frustrating, but in the context of being surrounded by the Arundel Marbles, you were almost encouraged to let your eyes drift about the Greek and Roman Sculptures. While listening, one found new things to notice that in the normal visit would have been only glanced it, like the incredibly lifelike eyebrows on a 1,900 year old sculpture of a Roman woman. It's this setting that takes the chamber pieces and somehow breathes new life into them, ironically by putting them amongst ancient sculptures in a museum building that actually predates the original performances of the two pieces.
The Ashmolean turned a great performance into a truly unique and thrilling experience.