The music of Beethoven is close to the hearts of the Oxford Philomusica. A series of Beethoven concerts established the orchestra in Oxford 15 years ago, and they returned to the composer’s music to mark their 10th anniversary. Marking the midway point in the Philomusica’s current Beethoven Festival, this concert paired Beethoven’s two F major symphonies (numbers 6 and 8) alongside his Second Piano Concerto, in B flat – repertoire spanning a period of over two decades.

Marios Papadopoulos conducting Oxford Philomusica
Marios Papadopoulos conducting Oxford Philomusica

In his introduction to the programme, the orchestra’s Music Director Marios Papadopoulos says that it is the energy in Beethoven’s music which captures his attention, and this was certainly conveyed in the Oxford Philomusica’s performance of the piece. Although Beethoven referred to his Symphony no. 8 as “little”, it is anything but modest: scattered with accents and unexpected outbursts, the work packs a bigger punch than the composer’s description suggests. The Philomusica gave a truly excellent performance of the symphony, full of purpose, passion and power. The orchestra produced a bright but full sound, tender and incisive as necessary. From the opening of the first movement, it was clear that the players were utterly in sync with Papadopoulos’ vision for the piece. Cool, elegant phrasing was balanced with impetuous outbursts, with the energy of the ensemble infectious. The second movement had a sense of playful humour, the third big-boned but elegant. Even if the first violin section could have been tighter in terms of ensemble and intonation (with more richness desirable at points) and the horns frequently felt slightly behind the beat, these flaws did little to mar such a dynamic and engaging performance.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2 actually pre-dates his “no. 1 by five years: sketches dating back to 1790 mean that this was actually the composer’s first major orchestral composition, although he was to dismiss it as “not one of my best”. Papadopoulos directed the work from the piano, giving a fairly straight interpretation with a relatively hard sound. Although this lent weight and dignity to the cadenza, it meant that the impish and Haydnesque humour of the finale was lost. I couldn’t help wishing that his approach had a little more flexibility: when he did use rubato, the piece was transformed. The Philomusica once again produced a clean but warm sound, with attractively phrased accompaniment. However, there were a few issues: not only did the ensemble and soloist nearly come apart at a few points in the second movement, but the winds were often overpowered and the strings lost focus in quieter moments.

The Oxford Philomusica’s performance of the Pastoral Symphony may not have matched that of the Eighth, but it was still engaging and full of vitality. Throughout the work, Papadopoulos maintained a sense of momentum without sacrificing spaciousness. The real stars of the symphony were the woodwind, with particularly fine solos from oboe and flute. The first violins were still plagued by intonational problems and lapses in sound focus, and there were issues with the horns as well: certain moments in the third and fourth movements were less than accurate, and they often fell behind Papadopoulos’ beat. The third movement was particularly successful, moving from a polite opening to ebullient celebrations complete with wonderfully broad strings. After the strong contrabass section helped to create an appropriately forceful storm sequence, the Philomusica imbued the last movement with buoyancy and vitality, building to a passionate and fervent expression of praise before subsiding back to the original state of bucolic serenity.

The Oxford Philomusica played their trump card first with their spirited Symphony No. 8: the ensemble were on the best form I’ve ever heard them. Although their performances of Symphony No. 6 and the concerto were still enjoyable, they couldn’t quite reach the same level.