Ms Freeman began with Rachmaninov's Prelude No 1 in C sharp minor, composed when Rachmaninov was just 19, and the first of 24 such preludes. It was so popular at Rachmaninov's concert tours that audiences would demand it as an encore, shouting "C sharp!". Ms Freeman took the opening three portentous chords solemnly and slowly, gradually picking up pace as the heavy bass lines and long resonations thundered from her left hand, vigorously tackling the descending arpeggios.
Franz Liszt recommended sparing use of the sostenuto pedal in the interpretation of his Consolation No 3 in D flat so that the more tranquil passages would sustain no extra elongation of individual notes. I can never hear this piece without thinking of his transcription a dozen years earlier of Schubert's Ave Maria. It's really too short for the soloist to make much of an individual impression but placed here in the programme it served as a useful thematic link with the Rachmaninov – both composers were the nonpareil pianists of their day, and Rachmaninov composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 just five years after Liszt's death.
Chopin's Grande valse brillante in E flat major, Op. 18, is an early work from the composer's early twenties. Chopin’s Waltzes are less dramatic than his Polonaises but more 'public' than his Mazurkas or Nocturnes; I imagine them more as salon pieces than twirlable subjects for the ballroom. This one is characterized by a repeated rhythmical figure - one long and two short repeated notes - and Ms Freeman took it at a swinging pace, articulating clearly the many repeated notes and going full throttle at the surprisingly elaborate coda.
After the very brief Verdi's Prelude to Act I of La Traviata, Jocelyn Freeman returned for Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2. In her striking, turquoise dress she struck a note of flamboyance just perfect for the concerto, even though the pianist is given the initial role of accompanying the orchestra, and notably the horn, rather than dominating it, as in Piano Concerto No. 1 with its dramatic opening. Here we have a quiet, sustained 'adagio', while the first cadenza lasts for only a few bars. Ms Freeman then launched into a series of strong chords set against the ten throbbing cellos and basses and a splendidly heroic march – adventurous listening. Later, it's interesting how, in its duet with the solo cello, the piano is no more than an equal partner. After the 'adagio', the remaining five elements of the piece (not strictly-speaking movements since the concerto is in one, continuous movement) are at allegro pace, and I thought taken just a little on the tardy side by conductor Catherine Underwood. If I felt there were sections of the work where Ms Freeman could really have broken out, it may have been unrealistic to expect her wholly to throw caution to the winds given that the Oxford Proms Orchestra does not play together regularly as an ensemble; for this concert there was a single rehearsal in the afternoon.
After the interval, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Although The 1,001 Nights, aka The Arabian Nights derive from oral storytelling for adults, these tales of Aladdin, Sinbad, The Ebony Horse, Ali Baba and of Haroun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, exploring the streets of his capital by night in disguise, remain even today perhaps the most exotically thrilling stories of all for children. And Scheherazade herself is a modern feminist icon in that this intelligent and cunning heroine uses her abilities to save not just her own life, but the lives of other women by defeating her violent adversary Sultan Shahriyar by means of telling stories, left unfinished, over a continuous period of 1,001 nights.
This concerto for orchestra, in that each of its sections or soloist has prominent passages showcasing the virtuosity of the players – alas, unnamed in the programme – was conducted generously by Ms Underwood, who gave her soloists the maximum flexibility to express colours and lines. The orchestra was fluent and authoritative. From the opening solo violin of Scheherazade herself, played by orchestra leader Edmund Jones in duet with the harp, and on via smooth solo spots for oboe, bassoon and clarinet (the flute playing struck rather a harsh note in comparison) to the major contribution later from a big bass drum and varied percussion sound, the players excelled. Ms Underwood took the third movement at a fast-ish tempo, enjoyable since somehow it gave the programme's eponymous lovers a supple dancing quality, making them seem younger than would have been the case at a slower tempo.