United Kingdom Oxford Philharmonic’s Piano Festival  – Schumann & Brahms: Yefim Bronfman (piano); Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra/Marios Papadopoulos, Oxford Philharmonic Piano Festival, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 6.8.2017. (CR)
Schumann – Symphony No.2 in C major, Op.61
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major, Op.83
Reversing the traditional order of concert programming by featuring the concerto last –undoubtedly to give the keyboard the last word in this final concert of the Oxford Philharmonic’s Piano Festival – it was Yefim Bronfman at the piano, strangely enough, who leavened the bold and strenuous performance from the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, rather than the other way around. Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto is perhaps more respected than loved, on account of its broad symphonic gestures, carried across four sizeable movements instead of the usual three, but Bronfman brought considerable, nimble charm in the piano part, from the gentle ripples that followed the opening horn call (itself played evocatively, like an Alphorn, as through across a distance) to the skittish, good-humoured dialogue he sustained with the orchestra in the final movement.
Such was the personality of Bronfman’s performance that, although he often molded his contribution to the overall musical argument as led by Marios Papadopoulos with the OPO, neither dominated the other and the resulting interpretation was effective as though a symphony with piano. Only in an episode of the Scherzo was there an imbalance between the grand, deliberate manner of the orchestra and the withdrawn character of the pianist’s part. That movement might also have promised a greater contrast with the rest of the Concerto through the brisk tempo taken (as one to a bar, rather than three clear beats) and coming closer to Brahms’s ironic description of it as a ‘tiny, tiny wisp of a movement’ than he might ever have expected, or audiences might generally be used to conceiving of it. But the mysterious oscillating figure high in the strings was broken up rather too much in staccato, nor were the horns unanimous when taking up the same figure towards the end, by which time the music had lost some sense of direction. However, Bronfman carried off an unassuming, but moving dialogue with Mats Lidström on the solo cello in the Andante, and a lightness of touch elsewhere. Overall this performance cast the Concerto in a very amenable character, which may well have persuaded some that it is not so fearsome a beast to be avoided after all.
In the first half Papadopoulos led a powerfully driven account of Schumann’s Second Symphony – a work apparently imbued with the composer’s obsessive concerns about his health. After a flowing, though slightly directionless slow opening, the OPO’s performance took off with tremendous energy and bravado. Such vigour was often impressive, but sometimes detracted from a detailed or well-articulated sense of structure – for example in the scurrying lines of the Scherzo which sounded merely restless rather than purposeful, and in not letting up in mood or tempo in any of the fast movements generally. However, the lead-in to the Scherzo’s Trio was delightfully whimsical, whilst there was a clear forward impulse from the start of the finale, which lead conclusively to the emphatic, roof-raising coda underscored in the last bars by pounding beats from the timpani, like the portentous weighty strokes at the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra
The Adagio espressivo third movement offered welcome contrast in its expressive poise, though still creating a forceful, almost Brucknerian sweep in terms of texture and momentum. But the comparatively sweeter tone of the soaring strings in manoeuvring to their high trills recalled the greater, Gallic delicacy of the similar effect in the slow movement of Saint-Saëns’s ‘Organ’ Symphony, which also provides a moment of calm before a barnstorming finale. Nevertheless the abiding impression from the performance of this Symphony was of euphoria carried through with urgent consistency.