United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Brahms: Maxim Vengerov (violin & conductor), Marios Papadopoulos (piano & conductor), Oxford Philomusica, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 20.12.2014 (CR)
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83
This concert was dubbed a ‘centennial celebration’ in reference to the 40th and 60th birthdays of Maxim Vengerov and Marios Papadopoulos respectively, and they shared the honours equally in alternating as soloist and conductor. The programme intriguingly paired two great Romantic concertos which were written at more or less the same time – Tchaikovsky’s in a short burst of creativity in 1878, and Brahms’s begun in that year, but not completed until 1881. Despite their proximity in time, however, they are considerably different works – just as their composers’ musical styles generally share little in common – the former characterised by a flashy melodic and lyrical facility (even to the point of vulgarity) and the latter sustaining a complex symphonic argument where the soloist fits in as a part of this, rather than against it.
After the Oxford Philomusica’s graceful start to the Violin Concerto under Papadopoulos’s baton, it was as though Vengerov then took command in upholding a rapport with the orchestra with his typically warm and seamless playing on the violin, so as to keep them essentially pacified. But there was certainly room also for elation and energy at the climaxes, with Vengerov’s double-stopping impressively fast but immaculately controlled. Only in the cadenza were two of the very high harmonics fuzzy.
The woodwinds’ statement at the opening of the slow movement was somewhat lumpen, but again that was leavened to a considerable extent by Vengerov’s entry on the violin, and thereafter his solo remained poetic. However, the orchestral support became rather directionless, such that the sudden chord announcing the finale seemed more peremptory than it usually does. But happily the movement itself fizzed along, again aided by Vengerov’s effortless acrobatics over the strings of his instrument, eliciting from the orchestra a sense of both fun and purpose.
Vengerov assumed the baton in the second half for Brahms’s epic Second Piano Concerto, whilst Papadopoulos now took the solo part. The opening horn solo and dialogue with the piano were somewhat uncertain, and unfortunately rather heralded a performance in which the execution of the piano part did not always bear much relation to the orchestra’s contribution. The interpretation was also somewhat ponderous, although on the other hand there were frequent indications that Vengerov’s direction was fluent and detailed. Certainly the dramatic climaxes were pointed up well, and there was no doubt that the performance received all due weight. But often a bit more ‘lift’ would have made the work livelier. The first movement could have been more nimble, and the Scherzo was simply turgid, including even the major-key Trio section, which should normally come as a release of tension. It is true that Brahms spoke ironically of his ‘tiny wisp’ of a Scherzo, but there is still ample room for levity in this movement, coming between two other intense movements.
In the Andante, Peter Adams’s cello solo was soulful, and richly laden with vibrato. However, this was not matched by a corresponding tenderness of tone in Papadopoulos’s solo which, as elsewhere in this Concerto, tended to be played hard and steely. In Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse relates a vision of Brahms’s ‘striving for redemption’ by leading a myriad crowd of men in black who are ‘the players of all those notes and parts in his scores which according to divine judgment were superfluous’. That is not a view to which this reviewer subscribes, but in this performance those words bore some truth, particularly in the torrents of notes in the faster sections. More variety of tonal colour would have prevented that.
Clearly the Tchaikovsky was the more successful interpretation here, but the Brahms was far from a failure – a better cohesion of the various well-judged elements would have made for a more exhilarating experience overall, whatever the merits of individual moments.