A near capacity audience who had turned up anticipating a rare opportunity to witness a musical masterclass from the renowned Russian maestro Valery Gergiev were perhaps disappointed on arrival to learn of the late withdrawal of the controversial figure owing to a family emergency. They needn’t have worried, for into those considerable shoes stepped the lesser known, but distinguished Cypriot conductor, Marios Papadopoulos. Two alterations were made to the programme to accompany this announcement: Bruch and Beethoven replacing Stravinsky and Mendelssohn.
It was clear from the opening scene that Papadopoulos had full control of his assembled musicians, subtle movements of the baton being sufficient in communicating his requirements for dynamic contrasts, sudden accents and balance between wind, brass and string sections alike. Amongst all of this well drilled, cohesive execution, the acoustics of Sir Christopher Wren’s wonderful building no doubt enhanced the overall soundscape – we were suddenly in the Swiss Alps, imagining dawn, the subsequent storm, the Ranz des Vaches and, of course, the famous galop. The orchestra didn’t put a foot wrong in this opening piece, the energy and togetherness on display brought to mind an almost Karajanesque style – tight, controlled but with ample space for careful phrasing and well-chosen tempi.
Next came Bruch’s lush and lyrical violin concerto which was played exquisitely by the outstanding stand-in Anna-Liisa Bezrodny. This is a work which requires a true virtuoso in order to replicate Bruch’s true intentions; here, the soloist did the composer proud and delivered an impeccable performance. This was fully recognised by an appreciative audience, persistent applause ultimately unsuccessful in forcing the desired encore.
The second half of the concert saw the orchestra serve up a repertoire favourite in Beethoven’s creative and ambitious Seventh Symphony. As a highly acclaimed musician who has recorded the complete Beethoven cycles of both piano sonatas and symphonies, expectations were such that the master’s symphony was in safe hands. And so it proved, Papadopoulos ensuring that all of Beethoven’s requests for extremes of volume were given due accord, whilst the famously solemn Allegretto was given one of the finest renditions I’ve heard, the opening pulse of the movement building slowly, working its way toward an emotional climax.
One small drawback from the overall performance appeared in the closing Allegro con brio – a hitherto flawless performance from the timpanist saw him apparently lose all sense of discipline, drowning out virtually the entire orchestra in his enthusiasm. In order to compensate, Papadopoulos surreptitiously signalled to the remaining collective to raise their volume; happily, this had the desired effect and as the symphony roared to its rousing conclusion, the Sheldonian erupted in unanimous approval.
At the outset of the concert, a straw poll of all present might well have indicated a lowering of expectations, even disappointment. Far from leaving a lot to be desired, this was a triumph for all involved and a great advert for Oxford’s excellent Philharmonic Orchestra. Gergiev will return to Oxford in October. Here, Papadopoulos proved a more than capable trade-off.