The combination of WA Mozart, Beethoven and violinist Maxim Vengerov was an irresistible draw for a sell-out audience at the Sheldonian on Sunday evening. Yet the magnetic power of these three musical giants was insufficient to lure away the change ringers who ascended to New College tower just as the orchestra was tuning up for the violin concerto and proceeded to ring out peal after insistent peal for the next half hour. At least I think the culprits were in New College – it's hard to be categorical given that there are 13 bell towers within half a mile of Carfax Tower. And were they ringing in the first day of Trinity term or – happy thought! – welcoming Maxim Vengerov to the city? After all, we were told in the concert programme that he is 'often referred to as the greatest living string player in the world today.'
We commenced, for the moment bell-free, with Mozart's Concertone for Two Violins in C major, composed when he was just 18. With any other composer, one could file away the work of a youngster in the box marked 'juvenilia', but Mozart is of course in a class of rarefied precocity of his own. There was a vogue in the 1770s for concertos featuring more than one soloist. Usually called 'sinfonias concertante', this one is labelled a 'concertone', and it features not only a second solo violin but also a substantial part for the excellent Joe Sanders, the first oboe. I always enjoy his playing; from several years ago I recall his oboe work in Dvorak's New World Symphony in this venue.
Mr Vengerov was joined by the Philharmonic and as his co-soloist by concertmaster Natalia Lomeiko, elegant in a scarlet dress among the sea of black, grey and white all around her. Mr Vengerov directed from the violin, of course having established tempos in rehearsal. They made a contrasting pair, and not just in colour; Ms Lomeiko played with eyes wide open, he with eyes shut. This music is essentially bright and breezy. The second movement is marked as 'andantino grazioso'; the very words are euphonious and the dancing melody followed suit. The work finished with a quickened minuet punctuated by four brass instruments.
Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major was written the following year, so the prodigy was still a teenager. Each of the successive violin concertos is a little larger in scale than its predecessor, and this one has to my ear an operatic quality with the soloist as protagonist. The evening sun was now slanting in through the west windows as Mr Vengerov stepped forward. He must have played the piece in public dozens of times, it being a staple of the professional's diet; his playing here was velvet-smooth, powerful yet lyrical. At the moment in the 'allegro aperto' where the opening orchestral theme takes off again, Mr Vengerov made the most of the completely new high-flying, electrifying melody. In the prolonged 'adagio' he maintained an inexorable rhythm as the melody tumbled along, concluding with his own cadenza, quite low key and unshowy, a very long way from the star soloist who wants to impose himself on the music, thereby distorting the composer's intentions.
After the interval the Philharmonic was swollen by more than 20 players for Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, in my view one of the two or three most appealing of his symphonies. Conducting without a score, Marios Papadopoulos led out the slow introduction, indicating that whereas the music seemed to be feeling its way towards a destination perceived only dimly, he the conductor, from his standpoint of hindsight, was perfectly acquainted with both journey and its conclusion.
When the crashing Beethovenesque chords duly arrived via the timpani to shatter the calm, Maestro Papadopoulos stood on tiptoe, almost treating his podium as a launch pad. He squeezed out the gorgeous 'adagio', again becoming super-animated on reaching the dramatic descent, each note heavily accented by explosive cannon-shots from the timpani. The romantic beauty of the score in the closing pages was perfectly played by upper strings and woodwind together. The helter-skelter of the finale was enlivened by the horns giving a quasi-hunting version of the principal theme, and we needed no pealing bells to alert us to the quality of the symphony and its interpretation here.