Oxford relocated to the capital last night for this sold-out concert to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra. The audience included numerous distinguished alumni – yes, the city also boasts a University – and a sprinkling of that University’s current top brass. If the latter were taking time out from the day job of rebutting charges of elitism, it was to enter a world were the elite have always been celebrated. Three world-class soloists made this a gala occasion. Violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and Maxim Vengerov joined the orchestra for Bach's Double Concerto, while Martha Argerich played the Schumann Piano Concerto. Each has played with the orchestra in recent seasons, but when did three such luminaries last grace the same concert, let alone the same first half?

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov and the Oxford Philharmonic
© Richard Cave

Bach wrote his Double Concerto for 2 violins in D minor, BWV1043 while serving in Cöthen as Kapellmeister, but there was nothing kapellmeisterisch about this performance. Not that Baroque style was ignored – there were brisk chugging rhythms and terraced dynamics, a continuo group (with the conductor hidden at the harpsichord, the soloists leading the small string ensemble). Of course these soloists used some vibrato, but that was never very intrusive. And it was difficult not to feel about it as many feel about Bach played on the modern piano – had the composer heard it played like this, he’d have loved it. Mutter and Vengerov, with many a sly glance and smile, relished their interaction with each other and with their fellow violinists, who played standing up. In the sublime central Largo Bach’s closely interleaved tendrils of melody for the soloists evoke an operatic love duet, and were bewitchingly played. There was a well-deserved reception for such an opener, before the soloists returned to take a seat in the audience, as our focus moved from the luminaries to the legend.

Martha Argerich has been playing the Schumann concerto throughout her long career, and it is one for which she clearly holds great affection. On this occasion soloist and orchestra were not ideally synchronised at the outset, perhaps because our soloist was in capricious mood. Plenty of room for caprice in Schumann, of course, and it took only a few minutes for the ensemble to settle down and work with her. Once it did the first movement went well, right up to some perky woodwind playing leading into the coda, and some scintillating keyboard runs from the soloist. In the Intermezzo, marked Andantino grazioso, the lovely cello cantilena was played with fine singing tone, both from the section and the pianist – grazioso indeed. Both sounded almost reluctant to awaken from the composer’s dream.

But the reverie yielded to a splendid Allegro vivace finale, in which Argerich reminded us of her extraordinary gifts. It seems that the accuracy even in swift tempi and the ability to generate occasional passages of incandescent playing never fade. The closing pages produced a sheer bravura flair that this concerto too rarely provokes, and a standing ovation ensued – Mutter and Vengerov among the first to their feet. This was already an hour-long first half, and Argerich chose not prolong it with an encore, despite the audience clamour.

Martha Argerich performs with the Oxford Philharmonic
© Richard Cave

Marios Papadopoulos enjoys an advantage as a Beethoven conductor. He is a pianist who plays all the Beethoven sonatas and concertos, and understands this music from the inside. He used no score, and his account of the Eroica was a fine one, traditional and unidiosyncratic in interpretation. This was big-band Beethoven sounding as it did back when this music dominated our large concert halls, and all the more welcome for that. The first movement had a moderate tempo, allowing no passing incident too much prominence, and with sforzandi delivered without too great an emphasis. This might sound bland, but Papadopoulos sees the bigger picture and knows that the large scale sonata forms of Beethoven benefit from a steady pulse that generates cumulative tension, as we heard here.

The funeral march was a proper Adagio assai, its intensity growing as it progressed. The sturdily played F minor fugal section suggested stoical defiance even as it plumbed the depths of grief, Clara Dent’s keening oboe the pick of several fine solo contributions. The Oxford Philharmonic has some truly excellent players, not least timpanist Tristan Fry, who delivered drum rolls like rattling thunder. The three horns distinguished themselves in the Trio of the Scherzo, sounding wonderfully bucolic, like cor de chasse players galloping over the fields around Vienna. The finale’s closing Presto sounded properly celebratory as befitted the occasion, and the cheers were loud and long.

But there was one last item – an unannounced arrangement of Happy Birthday with hilarious contributions from some famous well-wishers, including Johann Strauss, Richard Wagner and Edward Elgar. Here’s to the next 20 years!