Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony Given a Life-Enhancing Performance in Oxford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Farrenc: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 30.4.2019. (CC)

Marios Papadopoulos (c) Brendon Fraser

Beethoven – Overture, Die Ruinen von Athen, Op.113; Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat Op.19

Farrenc – Symphony No.3 in G minor Op.36

In the beautiful setting of Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre, and as part of their twentieth anniversary season, the Oxford Philharmonic gave a radiant, powerful performance of Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony. The more one hears Farrenc’s work, the more its stature seems to grow: the Insula Orchestra under Laurence Equilbey gave a period-instrument performance at La Seine Musicale in February 2019, again coupling it with Beethoven (review); the programme was repeated in London’s Barbican Centre a month later, with a change of piano soloist in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (review). It’s interesting to note that for its 1849 premiere, the work also shared space with Beethoven.

Performing on modern instruments, the Oxford Philharmonic gave a vital, alive account of Farrenc’s Third under their founder and Music Director, Marios Papadopoulos. While the link to Beethoven remained clear, Papadopoulos brought a variegated account, allowing Farrenc’s own personal voice to shine. The oboe solo at the opening (Peter Facer) was wonderfully warm-toned while Papadopoulos’s decision to use antiphonal violins paid high dividends. Hard-sticked timpani underlined the dynamism at work here, the suave second subject area providing an affetuoso contrast; as the performance of this movement continued, it was the moments of grace that emerged as the true highlights. Detail was brilliantly realised; only occasionally did one miss the tang of a period band, with their more acidic bassoons, for example.

Papadopoulos’s ear for sonority is remarkable: the balancing of the clarinet and horn at the opening of the second movement Adagio cantabile was pure beauty, the conductor’s flowing tempo allowing the music to sing, as Farrenc directed. The strings were a joy, their gently unfolding lines carrying a sense of inevitability. The scurrying Scherzo was fascinating, the sustained oboe tones carrying a menacing undercurrent. Again, it was the woodwind, here with keening gestures, that enlivened the finale’s narrative. Farrenc fragments her musical surface at one point, bringing in a more gestural mode; Papadopoulos managed this moment brilliantly, as he did the exchanges between first and second violins. A fabulous, life-enhancing performance.

The first half held a rarity, too. As we approach Beethoven 250, even more of the Great Man’s music will be in our consciousness. The short, five-minute Overture to Die Ruinen von Athen is one of several pieces of incidental music for August von Kotzebue’s play for the opening of a new German theatre in Pest (the ‘Turkish March’ is actually the movement that has achieved most fame). In this Oxford performance, strings were nicely balanced, four double-basses behind the cellos lending a nice richness to the strings. Papadopoulos found tenderness in the opening (another fabulously clear oboe solo providing the link from the Marcia moderato to the Allegro ma non tanto); the real strength of his performance was it sense of drama, of theatricality.

Yefim Bronfman recorded the Beethoven Concertos with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and David Zinman (there is also a DVD/Blu-ray of an ‘Emperor’ with the Royal Concertgebouw and Nelsons). In this performance of the Second, Bronfman’s touch was light and appealing, his sound similarly calibrated to achieve transparency. The first movement had a sense of space, broadly taken so that every detail carried; Papadopoulos laudably gave the tutti rests their full due. Bronfman’s sound was beautifully limpid; most importantly, structural junctures where piano/orchestra synchronicity is of prime importance were perfectly realised. It quickly became clear that Papadopoulos is a first-rate accompanist. In keeping with the broad feeling, Bronfman’s cadenza (Beethoven’s) was, at its heart, intensely lyrical.

The Adagio was very much six beats to a bar (it is marked Adagio, 3/4), allowing the music’s interior message to speak eloquently, Bronfman projecting the line well, the expressive Affekt of his suspensions beautifully realised (and with a real pianissimo from the strings at the end). Again, a moderate pace for the finale (marked Molto allegro) allowed all detail to speak. The encore was a calm (perhaps too calm in its central section) Chopin Étude in E major, Op.10/3.

Colin Clarke

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