Symphony & Concerto Cycle I, Sat 25th January 2020
Oxford is bursting with Beethoven. I take a stroll around the city on Saturday and (aside from being staggered at the number of tourists in town on an unprepossessing day in January) am happily taken aback by the multitude of posters advertising Beethoven events. On a whim, I duck into Keble to hear part of the piano sonata marathon being performed in the chapel – a sort of warm-up before the evening’s opening concert in the Oxford Beethoven Festival. I sit for an hour, taking in various delicacies from the 9th-12th Sonatas in the chapel’s painterly acoustic, before dipping back into the crowds to find somewhere for lunch.
At 7.30 I join a full house at the Sheldonian for a rather different Beethovian engagement. Tonight sees Marios Papadopoulos conducting the Oxford Philharmonic in Piano Concerto No. 1 (from the piano – he is also the soloist) and the 3rd Symphony. John Suchet energetically introduces the programme in a way that helps shape my listening – as Papadopoulos conducts the first couple of minutes of the Concerto, it’s clear how Beethoven had achieved a new clarity in the balance between soloist and orchestra. Papadopoulos’ sensitivity and intelligence is clear: he produces notes with the same freshness as if they were a brilliant idea that had just occurred to him. The first movement has the silvery precision of a pretty, wind-up bird, all inquisitiveness and expansion. The second movement sees a perfect sympathy between the piano and orchestra before the surprising warmth - and even, I’d say, humour - of the third movement. It’s a delightful opening and – after the mild drama in the interval of the removal of the piano, which gets its own applause – we’re attuned to this special partnership of conductor and orchestra, and eager for the Third Symphony.
John Suchet again introduces the work with helpful illustrative examples of exactly why it is viewed as such a pivotal moment in the development of the Romantic. For the next hour I can simply enjoy myself. The orchestra are clearly having a good time, too: throughout the piece I spot desk partners exchanging smiles, which, I realise, is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The unusual acoustic of the Sheldonian (somewhere between drawing room and cruiseliner) actually works well: we don’t really need the reverberation afforded elsewhere. Clara Dent’s flawless oboe merits special attention, as does Philip Eastop’s horn; but the players at large are so joyously attuned to each other that the effect is of uniform excellence, no less exciting for its perfection.