United Kingdom Beethoven: Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (pianist and conductor), Beethoven Festival, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 10.11.2013. (CR)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
To celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of Oxford Philomusica, the orchestra and its music director are reprising their cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos, which was originally given to considerable acclaim at the outset of the ensemble’s existence. Surely few could tire of hearing these perennially engaging and fresh works, especially when performed by an orchestra in whose repertoire they have become firmly established. The only grudging comment I would make is that it is a shame that the old convention of overture-concerto-symphony for concert programmes is not observed so as to ring the changes in Oxford Philomusica’s cycle this season and put Beethoven’s equally vital concert overtures into context with his other orchestral music.
Marios Papadopoulos, as both pianist and conductor in the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1800), made a judicious choice of tempi in its three movements, allowing the music to proceed at a pace so as to gather its own logic and momentum, without becoming cautious or ponderous. Particularly in the exposition of the first movement the refined, elegant flow of the music, along with the rich sonority of the woodwinds, exemplified the continuing influence of Mozart upon Beethoven’s style, even as the latter was forcefully striking out on his own tack in the years leading up to the ‘Eroica’ Symphony. Darker forces were evident though in the sighing, rather than strident, accentuation of the off-beat sforzandi in the first subject, subsequently taken up in the second; and also in the fury unleashed by Papadopoulos as he performed Beethoven’s own cadenza for this movement.
The tempo of the Largo was such as to allow the music to sing, and the strings responded to this with a beautifully silken tone. Papadopoulos’s touch at the piano was generally a little too hard however, although the Schubertian modulation of the E major main theme to G major elicited a more tender approach. Reposeful as the movement was, it could have been more rapt and intimate had the orchestra not been afraid to observe a real pianissimo to create an awed, hushed atmosphere, rather than maintaining a too immediate, mezzo forte dynamic throughout. Papadopoulos effected some contrast with the final movement by starting it almost once the last chord of the slow movement had died away, and by his incisive performance on the piano – at times quite dance-like in the recurring rondo theme. He and the orchestra pursued a determined course through the movement, with relief offered by the Mozartian grace of the theme, as taken up by the clarinets in the development, and a sense of mystery instilled in the ensuing fugato, which Papadopolous presumably wanted to emphasise as foreshadowing the example in the second movement of the Symphony No. 7. The orchestra was not quite settled rhythmically as the finale erupted into 6/8 time for the coda, but they regained poise for an emphatic final flourish.
In the performance of the Symphony No. 7 (1811-12), the violins were arranged antiphonally, with the cellos and double basses in the middle, slightly to the conductor’s left. This made for a more integrated sound – at least from the strings – than in the Concerto, where the lower strings’ position to the right of the piano (thrust forwards into the middle of the orchestra) had tended to emphasise their anchoring notes, at the expense of the melodies above. The slightly raised position of some of the brass and wind at the back of the orchestra, and the use of wooden sticks on the timpani, brought these instrumental sounds into prominence, and a raw, impulsive edge to the performance as a consequence, especially in the Symphony. The drum taps often helped to drive the music onwards, for instance in stressing the hiccupping notes rising up the scale at the end of the first movement’s exposition to dramatic effect. Some will have been thrilled by this (judging by the applause for Tristan Fry), but others (including this reviewer) might have found it too rough for much of the time.
Again, tempi were relatively steady but Papadopolous maintained an urgency in the music so that it did not sag at all, aided too by not observing any repeats. After some slightly messy ascending scales, the slow introduction led gently into the first movement, but the orchestra built up an insistent argument with its repetitions of the prevalent dotted figure. In the second movement, as with the Concerto’s Largo, a wider variety of dynamics would have created more mystery, but Papadopoulos ensured the main theme pressed on, despite lacking very detailed articulation. The energetic pace of the Scherzo surged ahead to the weighty opening-out of sound in the twice-occurring Trio section. The finale was fast and dramatic, as well as hefty, but Papadopolous held back sufficiently to achieve an exciting headlong rush to the Symphony’s searing climax – certainly an apotheosis, whether or not of the dance.