Tension and Contrast in Oxford Philomusica’s Beethoven Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven: Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (pianist and conductor), Beethoven Festival, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 16.11.2013. (CR)

Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68

This programme featured some of the most amiable music in Beethoven’s output of symphonies and concertos as well as works such as the Piano Concerto No. 2 and (to some extent) the Symphony No. 8,  which are often overlooked in favour of what are considered to be their more original and seminal companions in this repertoire. Beethoven countered the critics’ unfavourable comparison of the Eighth Symphony with the Seventh by explaining ironically that this was due to the Eighth’s being the better work. Certainly its developmental rigour and taut structure could not have come from any earlier period in Beethoven’s compositional life.

Perhaps surprisingly, in his performance of the Symphony No. 8 (1812) Marios Papadopoulos adopted a fairly heavy-handed approach to the two outer movements, despite a breezy tempo for the first movement, as though to emphasise that this is no mere Cinderella symphony falling between Nos. 7 and 9. The swift tempo of the finale and comparative lack of rubato resulted in an almost impatient trajectory towards the finish, with the violins’ fast quaver triplets sometimes despatched in spiccato fashion. The final tonic chords were resplendent however, with the violins’ bright open thirds (on A) matching the trumpets in sheer resonance. The two middle movements were not much differentiated in this performance, with their graceful manner and similar tempo (rather than especially pert or pointed in the staccato second movement), but the cheeky interactions between strings and woodwinds offered some diverting humour.

There is much in the Piano Concerto No. 2 (begun around 1788 and reaching its final version for publication in 1801) which is Mozartian, but again this performance took on a distinctly Beethovenian power and dynamism, instilled from the beginning with the insistent dotted rhythm of the arpeggio fanfares. As both pianist and conductor Papadopoulos skilfully presided over a struggle between the orchestra and piano without losing a sense of coherence. In the cadenza (Beethoven’s own of 1809) he then offered a notable range of colours, with a serious and concentrated character (where the music sounds somewhat like a Bach fugue with its contrapuntal development of the first subject) before moving on to a more warmly Romantic, Chopinesque mood as the music became more impassioned. The second movement shared the latter quality, taken at a leisurely speed, but eschewed the graciously legato lines of a transcendentally peaceful slow movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto. The finale was playful, but more might have been made of the offbeat notes in the main rondo theme.

As with the account of the Symphony No. 6 after the interval, the deficiency of the Sheldonian Theatre’s acoustic (or non-acoustic, really) made the sound seem constantly immediate and almost hectoring, allowing little possibility for different perspectives or depths of space to open up or recede. On the whole there is little any conductor or orchestra can do to counteract this, although in these performances it might have been sensible to exaggerate extremes of dynamic more – especially in quieter music – so as to emphasise the contrasts. In compensation however, it can be said that this immediacy had the effect of impressing upon the listener – in music that can threaten to become over-familiar – the same sensation of startling energy and originality that Beethoven’s first audiences must have experienced.

Oxford Philomusica offered more contrasts of shade and light in their performance of the Symphony No. 6 (1807-8), most notably in the development of the first movement where the repeated arpeggios in the strings move from B flat major to D major. The second movement was a touch brisk, the water of the brook streaming along as though the downpour of rain had already happened, rather than merely gurgling past the banks tranquilly. The arching melody in the cellos and violas which threads its way through the watery textures at a couple of points was particularly soulful, and with its flowing lilt it presaged the swing which the string section, as a whole, brought to the melody of the hymn of thanksgiving in the final movement, also in compound time. The finale followed an impressively violent storm where the acoustical proximity of the venue was an advantage, as the force of the timpani’s thunderbolts gave the audience the impression of being at the storm’s epicentre.

At times Papadopoulos’s interpretation put me in mind of a question which Theodor Adorno once put, ‘how is it possible that in Beethoven – even where antagonistic moments are simply absent, as in the closing movement of the Pastoral – symphonic tension is nevertheless created?’ This performance consciously strove for such tension, rather than just seeking the ‘expression of feeling’ in Beethoven’s description of the symphony’s purpose, which will have been enthralling for many, but enervating for some.


Curtis Rogers

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