United Kingdom Palazzo, Mendelssohn, and Schubert: Alexandra Conunova (violin), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos and Marcello Palazzo (conductors). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 15.12.2023. (CR)
Marcello Palazzo – Trails
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Schubert – Symphony No.9 in C major ‘Great’, D944
Janine Jansen was due to perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto but she was replaced at short notice by Alexandra Conunova. After the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and Marios Papadopoulos set a calmly poetic mood in the opening bars of the work, she took off with a chaste, unfussy account of the solo part, not chasing after dramatic effects for the sake of it, but even seeming to tame the orchestra when they stirred up more passion and agitation in their episodes. Although the Andante remained lyrical and flowing, greater vibrato gave the music somewhat more blood and presence than the first movement. Conunova and the orchestra’s playful way with the finale preserved a sense of Classical poise and charm to the end, avoiding any excess or instability. It was apt that, for an encore, Conunova continued the mood of levity and key of E major of the Concerto’s finale by offering an account of the Prelude to Bach’s solo Partita No.3 which seemed almost breathless in its concentrated, continuous momentum but never hurried.
The concert opened with Marcello Palazzo (a recent postgraduate student at Oxford) on the podium to conduct the world premiere of his brief orchestral work Trails. Inspired by Munch’s painting New Snow in the Avenue, it charts a journey into an uncertain future, but by two children who seem to remain reassuringly side by side as they undertake it. The piece elaborates a single, monolithic chord which is sounded at the outset with something of the expansiveness of Sibelius. But it then proceeds quite programmatically through a variety of instrumental timbres in such a way that put me in mind of some twentieth-century French music, Dutilleux for instance (its variously wistful and acidulous woodwind seeming to echo the opening of Métaboles for instance). If the composer’s own conducting of the work didn’t surge forwards with more portentousness that may have been because the composition’s quiet ending is not meant to convey any finality or arrival, but to leave questions open.
The mighty edifice of Schubert’s Symphony No.9 formed the concert’s hefty second half. Papadopoulos and the orchestra previously performed the work together in 2017, but this later interpretation was more convincing in at least being generally more consistently brisk – after a quite spacious Andante introduction to the first movement – and so for the most part avoiding the issue of how to navigate gear changes in tempo between sections. If anything, there seemed to be a slight speeding up for the first movement’s second subject (as in 2017) which was more pronounced in the recapitulation. That pace, almost unremitting, tended to evoke period performance practice in that respect, as also a relative lack of vibrato. But the generally weighty, solid articulation was in line with the character of a full symphony orchestra with modern instruments.
That came more to the fore in the great structural contrast drawn by the notable slowing down for the central cataclysmic climax in this movement. The orchestra’s course accumulated considerable force for the grinding dissonances against which the stubborn march-like theme comes up, as though against a brick wall, ending in two screaming diminished chords high up in the strings here, echoing the similar effect by the likes of Sawallisch or Celibidache, and anticipating the colossally fearsome chord at the apex of the Adagio of Bruckner’s Ninth. Adumbrations of Bruckner were also apparent in frequently yearning or soaring lines of the cellos like the songful second subjects he tends to bring in his symphonies – in the case of this performance, in those instruments’ response to the very opening theme on the horns; their lyrical continuation of the marching theme as a soothing riposte to the second movement’s searing dissonance; and singing melodies threaded through the Scherzo. An effective, and generally untypical, shift in mood and pace marked the transition to the genial Trio section at the centre of that third movement, but otherwise this was a performance that tended to sweep all before it towards a thrilling, hectic conclusion.