The Sheldonian on a sultry Oxford evening was graced by the presence of the 91-year old Israeli-American concert pianist Menahem Pressler, seemingly fresh as paint after a six and a half hour Masterclass programme of the day before. Dammit, even Arthur Rubinstein retired at 89!
It was remarkable enough to hear a man contemporaneous with Elgar and Gustav Holst, born in the year Sibelius' 6th Symphony was composed. Even more so to experience his perky presence at the keyboard and enjoy the delicacy of his picking out the notes as he constantly glanced at conductor Marios Papadopoulos, whose low-key entry with his slim, 29-strong orchestra to the opening allegro seemed perfectly appropriate to the occasion.
If Mr Pressler's playing no doubt inevitably lacked that 'dig' in volume expected in the 3rd movement and its robust cadenza, in the larghetto his elegantly-voiced chords stepped down the keyboard with quiet dignity. In his orchestral responses, Mr Papadopoulos felt no inhibition, his hands exhorting the orchestra to swell with emotion. The movement, with its gloriously extended coda, ended on a high note, and Mr Pressler was called back twice to the stage amid a storm of applause for encores.
After the interval, Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, with the orchestra's ranks now exactly doubled. The sound was optimized by flautist Anthony Robb, whose supple playing I always admire, here doing a fun cuckoo impression in the 1st movement, and a wonderfully lively clarinet from Matthew Hunt who was in fact the first player to be singled out for note by the conductor at the end.
The work is notable for showing us not the surly, frustrated and eccentric bachelor of tradition, but an observant and joyful artist at home in the fields that he found just outside Heiligenstadt, today a suburb of Vienna. Everything from a cuckoo to a summer thunderstorm is captured with loving detail. The airy clarity Mr Papapdopoulos achieved from his orchestra means that even at quite a swift tempo, there was little sense of the music being driven; particularly noticeable with the buoyant pulse from basses and cellos leading into the development section. In the andante, the Scene at the Brook, the conductor coaxed magical pianissimos from his players. The subsequent Peasant's Dance was a relatively subdued event, with strings not as boisterous as often. The Storm, on the other hand, was almost shockingly vivid and dispatched with some fury.
In the finale, Mr Papadopoulos at one moment stood apparently rapt, carried away by the torrent of melody flowing all around him. How could his audience not respond to his evident joy?