Oxford Philharmonic Celebrates its 20th Anniversary with Stellar Soloists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Schumann, and Beethoven: Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov (violins), Martha Argerich (piano), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra /Marios Papadopoulos (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 12.1.2019. (MB)

Bach – Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043

Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54

Beethoven – Symphony No.3 in E-flat major, Op.55, ‘Eroica’

A curious concert this: three star soloists, any one of whom would likely prove a highpoint of most orchestras’ seasons; an excellent yet, to many, unknown orchestra; and, sadly, a conductor who proved at best mediocre. Quite how the Oxford Philharmonic and Marios Papadopoulos had been able to enlist the services of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov, and Martha Argerich (!) for the orchestra’s twentieth-anniversary concert, I have no idea. Even if I could not help but wish that I had left at the interval, it had been an unusual, or rather unique, opportunity to hear all three.

Bach’s Double Violin Concerto was performed without conductor, violins and violas standing. The orchestra instantly revealed a cultivated string sound, matched and indeed led by Mutter and Vengerov. The first movement was taken quickly indeed: too fast, I am afraid, with much of Bach’s music simply skated over. Solo ornamentation was not unduly distracting, but largely unnecessary. Still, compared to what one often hears today in Bach, there was nothing especially perverse. The central Largo ma non tanto was again on the fast side, but perhaps not entirely unreasonably so. Mutter’s tone proved more Romantic, although Vengerov’s rich, viola-like tone on the G string offered its own allure and pleasure. It was a musical, if not especially profound performance. (We shall always have the Oistrakhs.) Much the same might be said of the finale, again very quick, but with better reason than the first movement. Mutter showed a naturalness in her phrasing I have not heard from her in years.

Argerich, however, seemed far more in tune with Schumann and his demands. A full, Romantic orchestra, large by today’s standards and all the better for it, joined her in an emphatic opening paving the way for poetic flights of fancy from piano and woodwind soloists alike. The problems, such as they were, lay with Papadopoulos, who drove the orchestra mercilessly, quite unmusically, and unquestionably at odds both with its playing and with that of the soloist; that is, until, his direction suddenly started meandering. Insofar as Argerich regained (infinitely flexible) control, there was much to enjoy. Her direction of what became essentially chamber music was as much to be savoured as her solo playing; a knowing, confiding nod to the principal cello would have been heard, even had it not been seen. Innigkeit and fire, dialectically related yet apparently spontaneous, reminded us once again what we miss, given her withdrawal from the solo platform. So too did the cadenza, despatched with a well-nigh Brahmsian integrity and vehemence, yet fresh as ever. If only, here and elsewhere, she had been partnered by a musician with a superior sense of harmony, of form, of tempo: a Barenboim, for instance. The Intermezzo benefited greatly from being essentially led by Argerich: these were her dreams, her phantoms. The finale’s opening bars proved surprisingly martial, yet not unreasonably so. Would that the same might have been said later on of hard-driven orchestral tutti, blaring brass much in need of reining in.

There was little faulting the orchestra in the Eroica Symphony. Admirable heft, variegation, unanimity of ensemble, and much more were all on display. Not to have the first movement taken at currently fashionable breakneck speed proved a relief in itself. Alas, neither here nor in any of the symphony’s movements did Papadopoulos convey so much as a hint of structure becoming dynamic form. The harmonic motion on which the symphony’s progress is founded passed for nothing, so too did much phrasing, especially during the slow movement. One phrase just followed another, one paragraph another. What did it add up to? What did it mean? Very little, so far as I could discern. The Funeral March and finale seemed interminable: not on account of having been taken particularly slowly, but from a lack of formal logic and impetus. Merely pleasant Beethoven barely registers as Beethoven at all: given the excellence of the orchestral playing as such, a great pity. As for the tedious, allegedly ‘humorous’ encore, the less said the better.

Mark Berry

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