United Kingdom Mozart and Bruckner: Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (pianist and conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 14.6.2014
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K595
Bruckner Symphony No. 7 in E major
For its last concert this season, the Oxford Philomusica turned to profound and transcendent thoughts by two composers who might seem to be poles apart in their musical aesthetics. But in fact they share not only their Austrian nationality but also a propensity to a certain melodic lyricism as opposed to a more rigorous, Germanic development of pithy motifs.
Just as the myth surrounding Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ emerged as representing some sort of summation of the composer’s symphonic achievement simply because it turned out to be his last, so there has been the tendency to regard the Piano Concerto No.27 as, in the words of one commentator, standing at the threshold of eternity. In neither case can Mozart have actually known either would be his last essay in their respective genres (although completed in 1791, the concerto was probably first sketched in 1788) and in Papadopoulos’s performance and direction of the concerto there was a down-to-earth composure, as though wanting to disprove such retrospective interpretations. The first movement was leisurely, certainly, but it not overlaid with any exaggerating resignation to death. Indeed the little dotted fanfare figure which often punctuates the movement was insistent each time, as though very much a call to life.
Again, an unaffected character of simplicity marked the Larghetto, with the exquisite modulation from B flat to G flat a little before the recapitulation approached with great tenderness. The rondo finale proceeded at a comfortable trot. As an endearing little touch on the final appearance of the main theme, Papadopoulos drew back somewhat, making it more sweetly innocent than it had been up to that point, perhaps mischievously so, before the final headlong rush to the end, dismissing any wilful insincerity beforehand with characteristic Mozartian insouciance.
The Philomusica excelled themselves in Bruckner’s mighty Symphony No. 7, but with one serious reservation. During the first developed repeat of the slow movement’s main first section, the performance became noticeably muddled, the orchestra having apparently become lost. The music at that point does indeed sound as though it is searching for a way out of some impasse, but here it certainly sounded different from any realisation I have heard before, and this is one of just two or three of Bruckner’s symphonies least beset by revisions and textual variants. Alterations were made in 1885 to Bruckner’s original score of 1883, rendering the latter version more or less irrecoverable. It is the later version which is usually heard now, as promulgated through Leopold Nowak’s edition (and which also contains the controversial cymbal crash, incidentally, included in this performance). Although Robert Haas’s edition attempted to recover the Urtext, the differences are not very significant. What was heard in the Sheldonian, therefore, can only be attributable to a lapse in ensemble.
This was a shame as there was otherwise very identifiable direction and purpose in this generally noble and majestic interpretation – so much so that one enthusiastic member of the audience felt moved to make a comment of approbation aloud in the pause between the first and second movements! The Seventh Symphony perhaps flows more smoothly between sections than Bruckner’s others, but even so, Papadopoulos negotiated these seamlessly, maintaining an ideal pace all the while. He projected the sublime moments with due grandeur but also retained a dimension of humanity, even of humour, at other times, putting me in mind of the ideal balance between these extremes which characterise Eugen Jochum’s exemplary recordings.
That said, a notable idiosyncrasy was the ominous, even near-apocalyptic account of the Scherzo underpinned by threatening brass (notwithstanding the odd insecure note from the trumpets) making the movement sound more feverish and closer to the Scherzo of the composer’s Ninth Symphony than I have ever heard it. In comparison the Trio section was dreamy and lush, though again, not exactly light on its feet. The finale was taken fairly quickly, with a tendency for the dotted principal theme to become excitable. However, Papadopoulos drew back a little for the monumental coda, capping the movement with the gravitas commensurate with much of the rest of the performance. As far as I know, this orchestra does not have much previous experience in Bruckner, so it was all the more creditable that, for the most part, it demonstrated such sympathy with, and understanding of, this composer’s idiomatic style.