At the Sheldonian on Sunday evening it was a German programme of music, the bread and butter of the Oxford Philharmonic; and this was the concluding event of this year's Oxford Piano Festival. In an unusual change from the established order of things, the symphony preceded the concerto. Schumann's Symphony No. 2 from 1846 is, I think, my favourite of his symphonies along with No. 3 (Rhenish), and it's still shocking to think that the 36 year old man who wrote this inspired music had, within a decade, died in a psychiatric asylum.
The start was taken in a smooth, even stately fashion by conductor Marios Papadopoulos, with the fanfare-like motif then emerging with increasing prominence and gradually permeating. There was a pleasing depth to the sound here, and Schumann proceeds via simple, sequential repetition in place of thematic sleight of hand. Variation and even decorative embellishment are largely absent. The orchestra's strings, from whom a number of familiar faces were missing on this occasion, worked hard in the 'scherzo', often pizzicato.
Then came the 'adagio espressivo'. Did Schumann ever write anything more moving than this? Later composers may not have thought so, since I thought I could detect passages to be re-worked in both Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and his Siegfried, and even in Grieg's Holberg Suite and Elgar's Symphony No. 1. Interesting that the forceful, passionate Wagner was influenced by material from the dreamy, self-absorbed Schumann. The strings section of the orchestra shone brightly in this movement; an oboe solo from Tim Watts was supported by the bassoons, and then we were treated to a solo, smooth but piercing and twice repeated, by Matthew Hunt, the solo clarinettist with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, who told me of his familiarity with the work from concerts with that orchestra. This gently swirling music is fit to be listened to while contemplating Claude Lorrain's Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia which hangs just a step away in the Ashmolean, or perhaps Piero de Cosimo's A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph in the National Gallery.
The finale unrolled in familiar Beethovenesque manner, with virile chords and the timpanist in constant action, ending on a pounding drum roll, though there's never any doubt that this is a deeply-felt Romantic work, the kind of thing that was a reaction against the scientific rationalisation of nature.
The soloist for Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 was Yefim Bronfman, once of Tashkent in Uzbekistan - then the USSR - and now an American citizen. Of him novelist Philip Roth has written: "Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than the guy who should be moving it… when he’s finished, I thought to myself: they’ll have to throw the thing out”. He certainly is an imposing, even stern-looking figure at the keyboard, but in his fingers there's delicate magic. The opening horn call was answered by the quietly rippling piano echoing its last five notes. Then Mr Bronfman leapt into a brief but tigerish cadenza, unusually placed at the start of the movement. The work is something of a symphony for orchestra with piano since the former rarely plays a supporting role. Maestro Papadopoulos soon assumed a characteristic pose of his, bending forward low, then regaining an upright posture by degrees, seemingly inviting his players to reach deep into themselves to draw out the notes and the tempo. The 'allegro appassionato' was notable for how Mr Bronfman practically came to a halt a couple of times as the music dies away to almost nothing, before an abrupt renewal of the conflict that had been raging beforehand by piano and strings.
The 'andante' offers a famous, extended duet between solo cello and piano. Cellist Mats Lidstrom was sitting just by the piano, and as they squeezed out the notes together, each looked the other directly in the eyes as the audience held its breath. Mr Bronfman seemed to gather extra energy from this passage since in the finale, bursting with a prodigal outpouring of melody, he latterly whipped up the tempo with harp-like chords with the left hand and on the concluding chords of the gallop home he almost flung himself off his stool in sheer exuberance. The applause rang out all the more on account of the generous way in which Mr Bronfman transferred much of it to conductor and orchestra, and notably to Mr Lidstrom.