Papdopoulos Substitutes for Gergiev Resulting in Performances Musical Yet Uneven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Bruch, and Beethoven: Anna-Liisa Bezrodny (violin), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papdopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 6.3.2017. (CR)

Rossini – William Tell Overture
Bruch – Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92

Valery Gergiev had been billed to conduct this concert but withdrew owing to a family emergency. The more interesting pairing of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony was jettisoned – presumably withheld until Gergiev does reappear in October – in favour of the two warhorses of the concert hall actually performed here, reprising almost exactly an occasion a little over three years when a substitute programme also had to be found.

Although the Overture to Rossini’s William Tell remained in place, Gergiev would surely have brought a more heightened sense of drama than Marios Papadopoulos’s interpretation, which was secure enough musically (except for the solo cellist’s slightly botched rising arpeggios right at the beginning) but endued with little sense of the Overture’s acting as the prelude to Rossini’s last and most ambitious opera in scale. The approach of the storm was prosaic, though the fury unleashed was impressive; although the cor anglais solo of the third section was suitably and languidly rustic, it could have been imbued with a more lilting character; and the famous final section was played with alacrity but started too heavily, leaving comparatively little room for an increase in excitement that should make this section an instrumental parallel to those operatic numbers where Rossini builds up momentum and volume.

The Oxford Philharmonic were surer of themselves in Bruch’s ever-popular Violin Concerto No.1. The opening woodwind chords sounded too starkly embodied and present, lacking in more mysterious depth, but that gave way to a probing account of the rest of the first movement by the orchestra’s own associate concertmaster, Anna-Liisa Bezrodny, which was never effusive but revealed the understated temper of the Concerto. In that respect one is almost inclined to compare the composition with the same sort of balance struck between Classical modesty and Romantic passion often remarked upon in Brahms’s music. But what seemed more truly Brahmsian in this performance was the manner in which Papadopoulos led the orchestra to surge ahead vigorously at climaxes – almost feverishly so in the first movement, but searingly in the slow movement, consistent with Papadopoulos’s approach to the score back in 2013.

There was also a hint of Brahms in the bittersweet dialogues between the violinist and solo woodwind in the latter movement, in this case anticipating the Adagio of the Violin Concerto by his older contemporary, since Bruch’s is the earlier of the two. Bruch’s Adagio was the best-paced movement in this performance since the finale – marked allegro energico – was a little torpid: the tendency to lurch forward at climactic moments tended to constrict a more freely flowing dynamism and sense of unabandoned joy elsewhere, though Bezrodny’s playing remained focused and engaging.

The performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 only really caught the spark of dance-like movement and energy with the finale, where it was sustained consistently with thrilling momentum. Otherwise this interpretation lacked flexibility between contrasting sections so as to bring it fully to life such as in the rather matter-of-fact lead-in to the Vivace first movement from the broad introduction, or the slightly too rigid oscillating figure of the Scherzo’s Trio section. Although balance was uneven, with accompanying gestures from the brass sounding too prominently over the strings for example, the antiphonal arrangement of the violins brought apt urgency to the music at times such as in the recapitulation of the first movement. Without vibrato, the fugato section of the Allegretto second movement sounded suitably gaunt in contrast with the richly-textured realisation of its principal section and the more relaxed way with the major-key episode in contrast. In many individual instances this performance remained similar to that back in 2013, and if it did not add up to something quite so satisfying overall, to some extent the exhilarating finale made up for that.

Curtis Rogers

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