United Kingdom Schumann, Brahms: Federico Colli (piano), Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Oxford Philomusica Piano Festival, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 1.8.2013
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73
Only 25 years old, Federico Colli has been establishing a reputation for himself around mainland Europe, and also came to prominence in this country after winning the Leeds Competition last year. Despite his youth, there was nothing brash or wilful in his interpretation of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, but considerable charm and affability instead. After the abrupt opening chords, the first subject was despondent and slow, giving the lead to a thoughtful, even morose, account of the movement. Initially I thought the performance would become ponderous and lack urgency, but Marios Papadopoulos’s purpose was more deliberate in seeking to cultivate mood and avoid development. Consequently there was a juxtaposition of different characters – perhaps the musical manifestations of Schumann’s alter egos Florestan and Eusebius – with only occasional eruptions of more manic episodes.
In his performance, Colli certainly had in mind the telling markings which Schumann specifies for various sections of the score: ‘affetuoso’, ‘espressivo’ and ‘grazioso’. Colli also showed the fire and passion of which he is capable in the first movement’s cadenza and in the eddying arpeggios in the latter part of the finale’s principal rondo section. But it was his personable disposition that shone throughout the performance, particularly in the dainty first theme of the Intermezzo for instance. His graciousness was evident too in the way that he did not especially seek the musical spotlight, but was content to play along with, even accompany, the orchestra, highlighting Schumann’s initial uncertainties about the format of the work, as to whether it constituted something between a symphony and a concerto. The poetry of Colli’s playing implied perhaps a fantasia or a tone poem, and it was a shame that some heavy timpani beats counteracted this subtlety at times.
Colli’s encores also demonstrated that he is no vulgar showman. First he played an uncredited piece, which appeared to be an arrangement of a Bach organ chorale prelude. (On the basis that the underlying chorale sounded like ‘Nun freut euch’, I think this was almost certainly Busoni’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Prelude on that tune, BWV 734, from Busoni’s set of 10 chorale prelude arrangements.) Although it features a virtuosic moto perpetuo line in the treble, there was composure and steadiness of purpose even as he spun out that fast accompaniment. Secondly he performed an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, making the piano sound as much like a celesta as possible.
In comparison with the Schumann, the performance of Brahms’s Symphony No.2 was vociferous and weighty, driven along with robust energy. This had been glimpsed sporadically in the Schumann, as mentioned, but in the Brahms it became a matter of principle. At the very opening there was no clearing away of morning mists, since the sun was already in full glow, as the first sounds unfurled already with considerable strength. This led on to a gusty first subject, and a foreboding horn call heralded a forceful development section where Papadopoulos kept pushing on, rather than drawing back in tempo as some conductors do, where the music reaches its climax.
Drama was very much the hallmark of the remaining movements too. The cellos laid on a thick, expressive line in their melody which opens the Adagio, and a rich, heady palette of colour spread to the rest of the strings in this movement also, perhaps at the expense of some contrasting shades in dynamics. Even so, room was still found for a devastating climax, certainly underscored by the brass, as elsewhere in this performance. In the third movement the quiet main section in the wind might have been more delectably pastoral, but the boisterous episodes in between packed a punch.
That ebullience, even petulance, was carried over into the finale. The meandering, searching phrase at the beginning was not particularly mysterious, but seemed impatient itself to be kick-started into action by the sudden explosion in the music which then drives the finale to its conclusion without any looking back. Again, those impetuous timpani were to the fore, but to be fair Papadopoulos did not choose an unduly fast tempo, nor did he accelerate in the rapturous closing fanfares. He did not need to resort to such artifice, as the momentum built up over the course of the movement, along with the gravitas of the strings and brass, created a fully searing climax.