Renowned as both a sympathetic interpreter of late classical piano music and as a politically outspoken artist, Sir András Schiff took centre-stage to tumultuous applause amid weather and a national situation which could both be described as 'turbulent'.
Beethoven's 'Grand Concerto' in Eb is now known as the 'Emperor', but being written in a Vienna suffering Napoleonic invasion, it pays no tribute to tyrants. The first movement is filled with bombast, but this treatment had joy in it (necessarily, to avoid Brucknerian po-facedness). As if to underline the point, lightning flashed through the Sheldonian windows, and thunder swelled at suspiciously appropriate moments. Just what was the extent of Sir András' authority? I found the second movement a little brisk, for a peculiar reason: I missed its deeply adagio repurposing in How to Dress Well's 'Pour Cyril', in which the orchestra's chords became sforzando sound-events. But the promise of a late-introduced theme was rendered with fresh, music-box precision of a player who knows Beethoven like the backs of his hands.
Having special affection for the finale, I was pleased to see the relish with which Schiff played its energetic theme. He was ridiculously comfortable (now seated, now standing) as pianist-conductor; it must be easy to lose control of the orchestra as those sudden syncopations kick in on main theme, but Schiff had them in the palm of his hand. Rain continued to beat, and it seemed our ornate Theatre was under siege, like Beethoven's home. And the heroic theme persisted, taking different forms, appearing to have run its course, then bursting in again after a perfectly executed timpani decelerando. The conductor marshalled his visibly gleeful forces with clarity and intent.
Wonderful programme notes showed that, besides now bearing names that would have bemused their composers, both of tonight's works were "last works" - Beethoven's final concerto and his teacher Haydn's final Mass. The 'Harmoniemesse' is known for its writing for wind instruments, but the vocal writing shone tonight - dramatically via Christ Church Cathedral Choir, mellifluously in Eleanor Dennis' and Anna Huntley's soprano and mezzo, agilely in Werner Güra's tenor and authoritatively through Neal Davies' bass. Hearing these lines weave together was a joy. The strings, oboes and bassoon of the Oxford Philharmonic opened a moving Agnus Dei, accompanied by distant lightning. Coming at the end of this unique experience, the hope and strength-in-weakness of the text came through resoundingly. This and the so-called 'Emperor' share more than wind-friendly keys.
Sir András returned to view several times to acknowledge undiminished applause. He did so sharing the glory with soloists and lead viola, and raising hands of choristers aloft. The storm had abated, and a Hungarian-born pianist-conductor, a German and an Austrian composer left this Roman-inspired edifice ringing.