Oxford’s 2016 Composer’s Workshop unveiled a new work by Giulia Monducci, Versus, which was then chosen for this first public performance. Modestly scored (double winds, two horns, strings and timpani) modest in length and mostly quiet of voice, it made an attractive centrepiece to the programme between the Russian heavyweights either side of it. The composer’s note told us that Versus takes “inspiration from the nature-nurture debate, concerned with the relative contribution both make to human behaviour” and “explores internal and external forces at play within one’s identity”. Whatever its origins the work showed a sure touch in handling a shimmering, at times eerie, orchestral texture, string trills and glissandi punctuated by timpani rolls. Atmospheric and elusive, it seemed to evaporate rather than end. It was perhaps unusual in a new work in leaving us wanting more, and given its brevity might with advantage have been played twice. The composer (b. 1981, and now reading for a DPhil at Oxford) was warmly received when summoned to the platform by the conductor.

Martha Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Martha Argerich
© Adriano Heitman

More string glissandi followed, in Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird Suite. This work at times makes a very big sound for a small venue and, in Kastchei’s Infernal Dance and the closing pages of the finale, the Sheldonian’s painted roof came under assault. But there was also plenty of affecting quiet playing from Tim Watts (oboe) and John Orford (bassoon). We are all used to this suite as concert music, but perhaps we might have had a greater sense of its dance origins, though that truly ‘infernal dance’ certainly had a whiff of the theatre about it. The finale was shrewdly paced by conductor Marios Papadopoulos, led by a nobly eloquent horn solo from Richard Dilley. The same orchestra will play the same work in the same venue in a few weeks’ time on 6 March, this time directed by Valery Gergiev.

Mention of Gergiev – who led the orchestra here last year also – recalls the fact that the Oxford Philharmonic's series often boasts such names among its collaborators these days, with Pinchas Zukerman, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Janine Jansen and Maxim Vengerov among the violinists and Maria João Pires, Sir András Schiff and Lang Lang among the pianists. But even those luminaries would concede musical legend status to Martha Argerich – not everyone gets a warm ovation just by walking onto the platform and those that do don’t always go onto justify it when they play. But Argerich did. The work at hand was one of her great party pieces, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major, and the performance was all one expected from her famous recordings of it. Here still was the immaculate technique and control of tone and line, and although her programme biography claims she was born in 1941, and it is over fifty years since her famous victory at the 1965 Chopin competition, here too was the youthful fire and panache, challenging the Oxford players to keep up at some points. The tigress of the keyboard shows no sign of an autumnal decline and there was plenty of scintillating passagework and rhythmic bite. The difficult finale, with the cumulative tumult of its coda, brought a spontaneous cheer from the audience, surely as the composer intended. This was a performance from the soloist not only of superb skill but also of musical intellect, for she held the balance between the romantic Russian soul of the concerto and its mocking modernist mask.

But the abiding memory will perhaps be the first of her encores, Liszt’s great transcription (more an adaptation) of Schumann’s love song to Clara, Widmung. Perhaps because an encore is the closest one gets these days to an Argerich solo recital (she has long preferred to play only in the company of other musicians), it was especially cherishable. Rarely in the performance of a piano transcription of a famous song can we say we did not miss the singer, but here Schumann’s sensuous melody was seductively phrased and ‘vocalised’ on the keyboard, and the extra Lisztian flourishes, delivered with dazzling dexterity, seemed more than mere embellishment. Even the orchestral players contributed to the acclaim which followed.