The habitual calm of Holywell St on a bright Sunday morning was transformed into something not far short of an upturned beehive with queues stretching down the road, a wholesale change of programme and rumours afoot of violinist Martyn Jackson having been attacked by a mad chihuahua. Normal service was soon restored, however: the double doors, like those of the Temple of Janus, were thrown open, the audience flooded in and the drama of the angry pooch dwindled into the banality of a sprained wrist. How gratifying, though, to note the presence of so many young people in the audience – more than I think I've ever seen at a Coffee Concert. Today's contingent was composed mostly of sixth formers on a study visit; it's a perennial source of puzzlement to me that more Oxford students - there are c. 203 music undergraduates alone at any given time - don't avail themselves of this unique, weekly chamber music opportunity.
Today's soloist was Petr Limonov, once of Moscow and now of London, in a Bach and Chopin programme which he told me afterwards had only been formulated a few days beforehand and at which he had been hard at practice for several days. We commenced with Bach's Partita No. 1 in B flat from a set of six partitas, originally composed for harpsichord in the late 1720s. These were intended as keyboard practice by amateur players and Bach rather charmingly noted in the score that they were: "composed for music lovers, to delight their spirits". My spirits certainly were delighted by Mr Limonov's appearing from a side door, walking quickly to the piano, sitting down and instantly launching into the 'Praeludium'. No fiddling with the piano stool, no flexing of the fingers, no hemming and hawing; just one smooth, purposeful movement. The succeeding 'Allemande' is marked as moderato but was here played, I think, at a rather higher tempo, and it was none the worse for that since the sequence of 'Allemande' – 'Courante' – 'Sarabande' is one of steadily diminishing tempo from 'moderato' to 'andante' and Mr Limonov's 'allegro moderato' provided plenty of impetus at the start.
Next came three Chopin Mazurkas (Opus 68), two from his youth and the third (No. 4) from three years before his death. A mazurka is an improvised Polish folk dance for a circle of couples, characterized by stamping feet and clicking heels and traditionally danced to the music of a rustic ensemble. In the central episode of No. 3, Mr Limonov maintained with his long, pointed shoes constant, rhythmic pressure on the right-hand pedal, perhaps as an approximation to the clicking heels of the dancers. He is a notably still and upright figure at the keyboard, his face pretty impassive, and I find something intriguing about this lack of obvious emotion set against the rhythmic elegance that his hands were pouring out.
Mr Limonov then passed on to the Etudes (Opus 10), linked to the Bach in didactic intention, although in their thorough musicality having moved far beyond any narrow definition of their title. No. 1 is a study in energetic arpeggios extending over the full length of the keyboard, played here with lots of power in his flying left hand. The famously poetic No. 3, however, which would not be out of place in a set of nocturnes, I felt moved forward at rather a prosaic quickstep. By now I was beginning to regret that Mr Limonov did not extend the gap between the studies beyond the very briefest of pauses – I wonder how many of the audience were able to keep up with the unrolling of the discrete pieces, and I found there was not quite sufficient opportunity to reflect for a moment upon the piece just played. In No. 8, as in other études with high velocity, the challenge, here perfectly met, is to find and bring out the melody that is buried in the flurry of notes. No one present can have been disappointed by our soloist's fluid left-hand cascades of No. 12 ("Revolutionary"), a little treat of movement and rhetoric.