Three of the last four winners of the Oxfordshire Concerto Competition have been violinists, and we had two of them in Saturday's line-up in the long, white-stuccoed gallery space of Oxford Town Hall.
First up came Leo Appel, a final year pupil at Matthew Arnold School and still only 18; so easily the youngest of our trio, but hardly the least experienced. He comes from a prominent Oxford musical family and first picked up a fiddle aged four. He won the under-18 competition last February with Saint-Saens’ Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso. Appel's choice this time was William Walton's Violin Concerto from 1943 in this re-written version, which was intended for the American violinist, Jascha Heifetz, a giant of his day. He called it an intimate piece. Would it suit a vast hall holding ten thousand people, he asked? I don't know how many of those there are in this world, but Oxford Town Hall is still a fair sized space and I wondered whether the work would quite have the punch and flamboyance to make the required big impact.
I enjoyed Leo Appel's down-to-earth approach to the concerto. Though his body movement remained guarded, his bowing had plenty of flow and bite, particularly in the first cadenza where he played silkily at the very top of the range, before handing the opening theme to the flutes, and then combining with sotto voce, gently drums. In the 'presto capriccioso' he played free of the orchestra, just with marginal accompaniment from cellos and basses. At the start of the 'vivace' he had to employ quicksilver fingering with lots of vibrato.
Joshua Asokan chose a rarity as his entry, Scriabin's Piano Concerto in F sharp major. I did not know the work until I listened to it in the week before, the half-dozen orchestra members whom I asked had never played it before, and Nick Breckenfield who compiles the programme notes told me he had had to compile his commentary for it from scratch. Asokan, a music student from St. Anne's College, hails from Colombo, Sri Lanka and he told me in the interval that he had found the concerto last year on YouTube and had fallen in love with it there and then.
The work avoids both display and the romantic concerto's tendency to stir up drama through the tension between struggle and victory. Piano and orchestra co-exist in harmony, and there is no sense of competition; indeed Asokan played almost the whole of the opening 'allegro' in concert with the orchestra, duetting effectively with the horns. Conductor John Traill was assiduous in coordinating with his colleague, glancing constantly at him. The variations of the second movement were presented as first in long, rippling notes along with David Rix's single clarinet, and then in quite an angry section before the rather sideways motion of the music settled into something more driving; here Asokan piled on the pressure, and the people sitting in front of me leaned forward in their chairs.By contrast Victoria Gill, a music student from Christ Church College, chose to play Max Bruch's Violin Concetto No. 1, a real war-horse of the repertoire and chock-full of melody. She has won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and a win here would have been the icing on the cake in her success this year. Whereas Messrs Appel and Asokan had been all in black, Gill wore a full red dress, a blaze of colour amid the soberly-clad orchestra and the white interior all around her.
I had thought beforehand hers was a canny choice since on paper the soloist in the Bruch has a most eye-catching part. In the event, the start of the opening 'allegro moderato' was taken slowly if not sluggishly by solo violin and John Traill, and the tempo was not really picked up thereafter. The cadenza towards the movement's end lacked a bit of punch, I thought. In the 'allegro energico', the soloist produced double-stopping at speed as the trombones – having an easy night of it – joined in with a clangour.
My neighbour, Julia Lourenço from d'Overbroecks School, and a violinist herself, kindly gave me her opinion of each soloist's playing and correctly picked the winner as Joshua Asokan (which I did not, having marginally gone for Leo Appel). This was an evening of impressive organisation by the Oxford Philharmonic (and they had been working on the competition for months before the final). The turnover of candidates and prize-giving were impeccable, the turn-out numerous despite the horrid weather, and the playing of a gratifying level. Roll on next year!