United Kingdom Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Giulia Monducci: Oxford Philharmonic; Martha Argerich (piano) / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 21.1.2017. (CR)
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3 in C major Op.26
Giulia Monducci – Versus (world premiere)
Stravinsky – Firebird Suite
Prokofiev and Stravinsky had both composed their respective works in this programme by the time they were 30 (albeit that the latter mined his ballet The Firebird for this orchestral suite later on) so this was certainly a concert of youthful bravura and confidence. In Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 there was a happy conjunction, then, between that facet of the music itself and a performance of assured maturity from Martha Argerich at the piano. She tapped into its vitality with complete ease and suppleness, but held it within a tight rein like a metal coil so that the wild runs and pyrotechnics on the keyboard remained securely embedded within the overall texture and argument of the orchestral score, rather than a fantastical display in its own right threatening to spiral out of control. A mark of that was how her entries into the performance were finely shaded and calibrated with the often mercurial succession of episodes wrought by Prokofiev in the orchestra. Notable examples were the way in which she stole in after the brief introduction to the Concerto and also for the first variation of the second movement, having been silent for the theme itself.
Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic gave a lively and colourful account of the score, with its widely shifting sections well integrated into a logical flow, working very much with the piano rather than against it, though it is testament to Argerich’s stature that her playing commanded attention by virtue of its own innate acuity, rather than having to assert itself artificially. More visceral energy, even violence, could have obtained from the orchestra at times, but there was commendable consistency across the whole work, with some fine solo contributions from within the orchestra, such as the rich-toned clarinet melody at the very outset, and equally pregnant solos from the bassoons subsequently.
Argerich treated the audience to two encores – first was Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s song ‘Widmung’, with its added ripples warmly and subtly conveyed; and secondly a miraculously taut and sprung account of Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, Kk141, capturing the tremolo of a mandolin or guitar with almost improbable agility.
There was a comparative breadth in the performance of the Firebird Suite, which meant that the introduction was nebulous and its meandering line low down in the orchestra seemed directionless; the bassoon solo in the ‘Berceuse’ later on was also somewhat prosaic. But the Oxford Philharmonic made a solid and purposeful attack upon the intervening dances, bringing out a sense of narrative and incident in the music, particularly in the ‘Infernal Dance of King Kaschei’. That was swept aside and the vision of a new world compellingly ushered in by the spacious sonic vista conjured by the shimmering strings before the finale. The latter might have been more searing, but it contained sufficient weight to cap this dependable account of the Suite.
In between these two compositions came the world premiere of Versus by Giulia Monducci (b.1981), selected from the Oxford Philharmonic’s 2016 Composers’ Workshop. She explains that the ten minute piece is intended to evoke the interplay between nature and nurture as competing forces in the make-up of a human person. Nature seems to be implied by the repeated, brooding notes held by the cellos and double basses at the bottom of the orchestral texture, scored for a reduced string section, woodwind, and horns. Above this, indeterminate globules of sound throbbed into and out of being, as though struggling to break free of nature, but ultimately remaining tied to it. These flickerings into consciousness sounded like a tamer version of Penderecki’s tone clusters, or the unpitched murmurings depicting the woods in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’ s Dream, and Papadopoulos sustained a due atmosphere of mystery and awe in their gradual unfolding, seemingly rightly eschewing any sense of destination or climax.