St Mary the Virgin Church puts on a hatful of concerts in the course of a year, of which the winter ones can be draughty. But on this close August evening it was so airless that women all around me in the 100-strong audience were fanning themselves with the programme or makeshift fans. This Dance and Dramatics Prom was billed ahead of time as a solo piano recital of four pieces by Jocelyn Freeman. On the day, however, the Oxford Proms promoter Edmund Jones guested with a long, solo violin Chaconne by JS Bach. It may be that the programme as planned was deemed too short, in which case I'm unclear why Ms Freeman did not add to her programme – something from her 2012 CD, perhaps: some Poulenc, say, or Debussy. The Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor is in a putative dance form, to be sure, though one cannot today imagine anyone actually stepping out to its rhythms in the appropriate footwear. A chaconne consists of a repetitive chord progression as well as a repeating bass line. Here there are 64 phrases, and Mr Jones had the task of combining these ever-changing variations cohesively and of dealing with the recurring bass notes when Bach declines to adhere consistently to the template he fashions for the beginning, and then chooses to draw from several distinct but different ones.
This was competent playing, I thought, of a really difficult work, and I appreciated Mr Jones' fairly technical introduction to the piece with little illustrative bursts of fiddling. His violin sound seemed thrust forward into the audience space more satisfactorily that was that of Ms Freeman's piano. Positioned as it was under the first two bays of the very high roof of the nave, painted in deep blue and spangled with stars, there was an impression that more of the piano's sound than was desirable was being propelled vertically rather than projecting forwards. Ms Freeman began with Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and went off at a rattling pace, more 'andante' than 'adagio sostenuto', I thought. But she did trace a clear trajectory in the increasing speed and tension across its three movements. There was a buoyant account of the 2nd movement with almost bouncy syncopations in its middle trio section, and she finally ushered in the fury of the last movement.
In Prokofiev's Dance of the Fairies, from Six Pieces for piano, from the ballet Cinderella, we had the fairies (presumably the envoys – or nieces - of the fairy godmother) preparing Cinderella for her fateful ball. In the opening Spring Fairy I thought I heard the influence of George Gershwin, dead not long before the date of its composition, while Ms Freeman was able to bring out the sense of relaxation and expansiveness in the Summer Fairy section. In Autumn Fairy, Prokofiev represents a cloak made from multi-coloured leaves via attractive figures. This was followed by Chopin's Grande Valse Brillante in E flat. This same waltz was played by the soloist a fortnight earlier in the Proms series at the Sheldonian. People who had bought tickets for both concerts might have been a shade disappointed that another Chopin waltz had not been chosen – there are at least 18 of them. The interesting feature of the piece is the coda which is almost grandiloquent and certainly appropriate to sum up a much more substantial work. Ms Freeman did it full justice with a swinging rhythm.
The conclusion was Franz Liszt's Ballade No 2 in B minor, a fusion of drama and lyricism which alternates between a dark and demonic mood on the one hand and an angelic theme on the other, this piece provided a sense of narrative drama. Ms Freeman was tested by the powerful, broken octaves and sky-rocketing scales, but, playing without a page turner to assist her, she produced the effect almost of a full orchestra. She thundered out the heavy left hand chords at the start, and when the music turns away from the insistently dramatic to something much more lyrical, she deftly produced the necessary development in tone and tempo.