Oxford becomes much quieter outside of the university terms, and this was reflected in audience numbers for Saturday’s concert. Although the evening did not pan out as expected, those who were in the Sheldonian still came away having heard some brilliant performances.

Avi Avital © Guy Hecht
Avi Avital
© Guy Hecht

The programme promised to bring together Baroque “ancient and modern”, and began with the latter in the shape of conductor Karin Ben-Josef's arrangement of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet. Ben-Josef chose to emphasise the expressive element of Stravinsky’s harsh idiom (so often sacrificed in favour of a quirky, spiky mode of performance). Her arching gestures helped to imbue Stravinsky’s juxtaposition of folk-like cells with a lyrical quality, adding thoughtfulness to the exclamations of the second movement. This isn’t to say that Stravinsky’s wit was sacrificed completely: concertmaster Natalia Lomeiko gave her solos a feel of playful impertinence. The processional third movement was particularly special, with Ben-Josef encouraging poignant pauses between the hushed phrases.

C.P.E. Bach’s Sinfonia in E minor saw Lomeiko lead the ensemble from the concertmaster’s chair. The lyrical approach of the Stravinsky continued, balancing the yearning violin one line with lightly articulated motoric accompaniment and a sense of curiosity. The idyllic G major of the second movement was the highlight of the piece, the easy cantabile mood compensating for a couple of bumpy corners between phrases and violin one intonational divergences. The crisp but robust string sound was well suited to the fiery third movement, although the Oxford Philomusica players brought a wistful quality to their sound for the major-mode interludes.

Avi Avital’s transcription of J.S. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto no. 1 in D minor saw the mandolinist take centre stage. From the opening statement, the concerto was marred by problems of balance between soloist and orchestra (despite the microphone behind Avital). The rest of the performance appeared somewhat hesitant, with the Philomusica players holding back. As a consequence of this, the D minor Sturm und Drang mood rarely emerged (although this could also have been affected by the top-heavy ensemble). Avital’s stage presence somewhat compensated for this, his charisma and physicality of performance making him a magnetic soloist. He brought rhetorical depth to his solo lines, although this occasionally felt a bit much: I couldn’t help wishing that he would let loose and revel a little more in the virtuoso display.

The second half of the concert began with an announcement that Ms Ben-Josef had been taken to hospital due to an accident earlier in the evening, and that the rest of the programme would be changed as a result. Avi Avital took to the stage for some solo material, beginning with a transcription of Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” from Baal Shem. Making use of the instrument’s entire range, from the moody lower notes to the impassioned upper reaches, Avital’s impassioned performance filled the Sheldonian. His furious picking and strumming built towards an impassioned crux before receding into silence.

The Bloch was followed by J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita no. 2, BWV 1004. Another transcription by Avital himself, the performance was utterly magical and left the audience captivated. Avital’s performance was dignified and stately, yet fluid and flexible. His stylish yet understated interpretation was utterly convincing: Bach’s melodic threads unravelled as if their direction was inevitable, and the flowing scale passages were undeniably beautiful. The supplicatory D major was both transcendent and peaceful, and the overall impression of Avital’s performance was that of a transformational journey.

Avital followed the Bach with a traditional Bulgarian folksong, Bucimis. After an introductory call to dance, the piece set off in 15/16 time. Avital was clearly feeling the groove, feet tapping and body swaying. His energy was utterly infectious, with many in the audience moving in time. The round dance whirled faster and faster, and the standing finale at the end was completely deserved.

Marios Papadopoulos, music director of the Oxford Philomusica, emerged from the audience to conduct the final piece without score. The ensemble gave a jovial performance of Mozart’s Divertimento in D major K136, bringing a bright sound to the sweeping phrases and spacious cadences. The cosy mood of the second movement was followed by a vivacious performance of the finale, complete with scampering scales. Although there were a few balance problems, these could be easily forgiven in view of the circumstances.

Avital and the Oxford Philomusica coped admirably given the circumstances, and gave the audience a very impressive second half. Fingers crossed for a speedy recovery for Ms Ben-Josef, and I hope she returns to conduct the Philomusica again soon.

****1