I was struck by the coincidence, or perhaps planned homage, that Friday night's Oxford Philharmonic concert, a Russian and French programme, reproduced precisely one I'd heard the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Queen's Hall, Edinburgh in April 2016. Whatever the explanation, Stravinsky's opening 'Dumbarton Oaks' Concerto cleverly melds the baroque and the avant-garde in something of a homage to Bach, and in the tempo giusto there's an early passage of insistent Bach-like rhythm for the two cellos. Then in the allegretto, when the lightly-scored, early passage with its dabbing, even jagged chords is in a flash superseded as the violins cease their plucking and revert to bows to deliver a warmer sound altogether, this seemed to me to represent that melding in a nutshell. The consistently rhythmical approach from conductor Marios Papadopoulos suggested he subscribes to Balanchine's contemporary judgement: 'you can dance to every note Stravinsky has ever written'.
On the surface, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2 is a cheerful, merry-go-round sort of piece, with a lyrical slow movement and a motoric final movement. Yet in the former, at the end of the longish cadenza and into the recapitulation, there’s suddenly this glimpse into very dark territory – into ‘normal’ Shostakovich dark territory, so to speak, whose subject might plausibly be death itself. Soloist Steven Osborne's rendering of the outer movements was full of dash – the allegro's opening duet between lower register piano and flute was especially exciting - and we received the full value of dramatic contrast between them and the andante. Osborne's playing of the latter was romantic without being sentimentalized. I've encountered before such a pitfall - the tempo dropping down to adagio from the marked andante, both in the concert hall and on recordings. Our soloist here, by contrast, caressed the keys as though they were composed of gossamer.
In the hectic finale, I felt for young Maxim Shostakovich being tasked by his father to play the piece in public. Even if its difficulty perhaps lies in its pace rather than great technical challenge, it's still a formidable hurdle for a music student.
After Ravel's celebrated Pavane, the main theme of this languorous music repeated over and again in the manner of film music (and to my ear the piece was plundered for a rhapsody in the WW2 film A Bridge Too Far), we came to Bizet's Symphony in C, composed at the remarkably precocious age of 17. Papadopoulos propelled the opener along at a fine allegro vivo lick. Then in the adagio, the violins led the rocking theme against pizzicato from the lower strings, the tension gradually rising – a glorious section.
A little earlier we had been entranced by the Spanish-flavoured solo from Clara Dent's oboe, and not least by her extravagant body movement, her face indicating she was giving it all she'd got. She was twice singled out at the end for special applause. How appropriate then that the rollicking encore, the Danse Bohème from Bizet's Carmen Suite No. 2 transported us from rain-sodden Oxford to the brilliant Andalusian light of Sevilla.