United Kingdom Beethoven & Eugene Birman: Maxim Vengerov (violinist), Oxford Philharmonic / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 10.11.2016. (CR)
Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op.84; Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61; Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op.93
Eugene Birman: Violin Concerto (world premiere)
The Oxford Philharmonic continued its association with Maxim Vengerov with two contrasting violin concertos – the Beethoven broad and lyrical, Eugene Birman’s Concerto terse and foreboding. The latter work received its world premiere here following its presentation at the Oxford Composers’ Workshop in 2015. The 29-year-old’s composition is cast as an assured single movement and described by him as not ‘based on some concept or idea but…something worthy of that name – ‘Violin Concerto’ – and all that it evokes’. Certainly, the violin interacts with, and comments upon, the brooding ebb and flow of the orchestra’s music. But the lasting impression is not unlike a tamer version of a soundscape by Edgar Varèse perhaps, though without quite such acerbic and extensive parts for percussion. Unity was ensured by Vengerov’s steady playing on the violin, bringing a streak of melancholy and introspection – and something of the mood of Berg’s Violin Concerto – set within the inscrutable sense of purpose brought to the orchestral support by the Oxford Philharmonic under Marios Papadopoulos.
Birman’s Concerto provided a strong contrast to Beethoven’s before the interval, which Papdopoulos took quite leisurely. The performance lacked tension in some places as a result, particularly in the exposition for the orchestra alone, but enough momentum was held back for a groundswell of energy at judicious points, such as in the way that the recapitulation surged ahead from the first movement’s development which Beethoven does not mark with a clear structural break. The tenderness of the music was very much to the fore (though the Larghetto sounded a touch neutral) paving the way for the miraculously seamless and long-breathed lines of Vengerov’s playing.
His performance was marked by an overall equipoise encompassing subtle inflections of tone or articulation, such as digging more into the strings of the violin with the bow to create a deeper timbre for more expressive effect when required without sounding rough, or the emphatic emphasis upon the rising triplets leading to the recapitulation in the first movement. The performance was sweet but with a measured use of vibrato and only occasional, slight portamento, so as not to become cloying as shown in the exquisitely spun chains of trills in the first movement; and it was controlled without any suggestion of coldness or indifference, though the swinging theme of the Rondo finale could have been imbued with more bounce from both Vengerov and the Oxford Philharmonic in order to offer more variety from the previous two movements.
The concertos were book-ended by dramatic accounts of the Egmont Overture and the Eighth Symphony. The Overture was expansive at first, with a glowing sound to the opening slow section but a sluggish lead-in to the faster main section, where urgency was saved up for triumphant coda. Balance between the raw sound of the brass (like that of period instruments) and the rest of the orchestra was uneven here and in the symphony, particularly in the latter’s finale, where the sound of the trumpets and horns was projected too much over the other sections. The use of wooden sticks on the timpani certainly gave the performances more bite and drive, though sometimes too crudely perhaps. It was an incongruous effect in the Violin Concerto to alternate between those and softer mallets – the latter were rightly used for the taps which open the work and reappear subsequently, but that begs the question why they were not used consistently in the performance of this work, even if not the programme as a whole.
Otherwise the interpretation of Beethoven’s concise and convivial Symphony No 6 was suitably brisk, with an exhilarating climax to the development of the first movement, and a graceful melody from the strings in the second. The remorseless, rubato-free account of the third movement Minuet would have benefited from a more winning sense of swing, but the finale found a better compromise between impulsive force and engaging wit.