Oxford hears deliberate Mendelssohn, robust Mozart and Argerich’s muscular Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Mozart: Martha Argerich (piano), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor). Town Hall, Oxford, 31.3.2023. (CR)

Martha Argerich

Mendelssohn – The Hebrides Overture, Op.26, ‘Fingal’s Cave’
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, Op.15
Mozart – Symphony No.41 in C major, K551, ‘Jupiter’

Martha Argerich last came to Oxford in 2019 and on that occasion performed Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Here she gave Beethoven’s more Classically foursquare Piano Concerto No.1 – actually the second mature one he wrote, but the first he published, full of youthful ebullience that owes as much to Haydn as Mozart in its witty, urgent energy – but endowed with her characteristic impetuosity and weightiness. With Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic setting a fairly broad pace for the opening Allegro con brio –creating tantalising expectation more by quiet reserve than pressing on – Argerich then injected the fire of that movement’s marking with her mercurial playing and vivid, deliberate articulation. Pianist and conductor together brought the piece more in line with the more substantial Romantic concertos of the nineteenth century, than one of the last concertos of the eighteenth century, though a sense of Haydnesque mischief was present.

The Largo was warm but mobile, providing a fluidly sustained backdrop for Argerich’s bell-like cantilena woven on top, looking ahead to Chopin in manner, before giving way to a forceful Rondo finale, almost more pesante than scherzando, but certainly brisk enough and looking ahead to the stormier scherzo movements of Beethoven’s later symphonies. Despite the orchestra’s vigorous playing of the principal, recurring section, Argerich by no means followed dutifully but argued the piano’s case in forthright dialogue in the solo episodes, the instrument’s bass register often matching the sturdy foundation from the lower instruments of the orchestra in the surrounding episodes so that the movement capped an overall muscular interpretation of the work. As an encore, Argerich offered the pair of Gavottes from Bach’s English Suite No.3: decorated pliably and idiomatically with French-style ornament, but with no-nonsense purpose rather than affectation, in the first minor-key section, and the second, contrasting one in the form of a musette projected with quiet, songlike clarity over the reverberating pedal note.

Opening the concert was a steady and deliberate account of Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ Overture, emphasising more its moderato than allegro character. Although the great stomping climax of its central development section impelled it with dynamism and drama, in general Papadopoulos’s interpretation created a monolithic, even an architectural and Brucknerian vision of the piece, evoking the solid, sheer rocky landscape of the cave than the airy breezes and sea spray of its environment. The occasional, punctuating phrases in the strings also yearned like the snatch of a typical Gesangsperiode in one of those symphonies.

Mozart’s last symphony in the second half also received a robust performance, asserting the grandeur of the title ‘Jupiter’ (applied to it after Mozart’s death) with the generally measured tempi adopted here. The strings’ strenuous way with the principal subjects afforded the work spaciousness and breadth, the woodwinds’ interjections tending to imbue it with more alacrity and excitability, whether in peremptory cadential chords or in the playful dialogue of the trio of the Minuetto. The songfulness of the second movement was carried by the lower strings, below the muted, silvery transparency of the violins’ sonority. After the expansive Minuetto, the last movement was fairly furious, not because its tempo was unduly fast, but on account of the forceful tussle of different contrapuntal voices in Mozart’s miraculous ‘fugal fine’ which each emerged through the instruments’ fierce, competitive argument rather than by a balanced layering of those themes. Again, instead of Classical proportion, it resembled more the vertiginous working out of combatant themes within the finale of Bruckner’s Fifth, providing an exhilarating conclusion.

Curtis Rogers

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