The Oxford International Piano Festival comprises a two-week long series of workshops and concerts, hosted by Oxford Philomusica and featuring pianists of international esteem, among them Andreas Haefliger and Sergei Babayan. It was Menahem Pressler, now in his 88th year, who gave the closing piano masterclasses and performed in the closing concert at the Sheldonian Theatre. The concert began and ended with orchestral works by Mendelssohn, with Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 27 in the middle. The unforgivingly dry acoustic of the Sheldonian did little to take the edge off issues of tuning and balance in the first half, but in the second half the Philomusica, with Marios Papadopoulos at the helm, showed that it was more than capable of coping.

Menahem Pressler © CAMI
Menahem Pressler
© CAMI

Like Mozart, Mendelssohn was something of a child prodigy, having compsed 13 symphonies by the time he was just 15 years of age. He was just 17 when he completed the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, telling the Shakespearean tale of lovers, fairies, magic and marriage. A highly evocative piece, the characters are represented by easily identifiable musical themes. The piece nevertheless demands much of the musicians themselves, with the tip-toeing, fast, quiet runs contrasted starkly against the joyous celebratory theme (not to mention the strings' portrayal of Bottom with his ass's head). Whilst the Oxford Philomusica's ensemble was generally tight, it unfortunately suffered from poor intonation between orchestral sections, the brass (except horns) being sharp and the woodwind flat relative to the strings. Occasionally, I felt this mattered: for example, at the points at which the fast semiquaver "fairy" runs are interrupted by wind chords. Nevertheless, the orchestra, under its conductor's keen direction, made much of the dynamic contrasts so important to this piece (even if the trumpets sometimes upset the balance), and I enjoyed this interpretation of a piece I had once analysed to death at school.

The intonation issues sadly remained in the second piece of the programme, Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 27 in B Flat, despite a quick tuning to the piano. This particular concerto is the last that Mozart wrote, having been completed in the same year as his death, 1791. Whether he knew it would be his last is unclear, but, as some excellent progamme notes pointed out, the music represents a culmination of his struggle to reconcile the symphonic form and concerto style – if only by eleminating the concerto "manner" altogether. Menahem Pressler was received onto the floor (there is no stage in the Sheldonian) with warm and rapturous applause, his reputation for interpreting Mozart's piano works being legendary. From a slightly shaky start, the orchestra quickly eased into the Mozartian style and rhythm of the Allegro. Pressler's solo exposition seemed to go off at a faster speed than the preceding orchestral music; I couldn't say whether this was the result of the orchestra beginning to slowly for the soloist's liking, or the soloist simply choosing to play faster – both speeds were viable, I felt. The Larghetto was a chance for Pressler to showcase his talent with a less obvious orchestral accompaniment, sometimes with no accompaniment at all. He is a diminutive man with a kindly face; his appearance complemented the particular serenity of this second movement. The vivacious finale, another Allegro, was bustling without being overtly joyous: as Friedrich Blume said about the piece, "all emotion, everything wordly and unessential have ebbed away... There is neither grief nor joy, neither irony nor despair, neither resignation nor consolation. In the world of this noble simplicity and quiet greatness, emotions are in vain."

There followed an interval. If the first half appeared a little under-rehearsed, the second half was markedly better, with a faultless and exciting performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 4 in A, "Italian". Mendelssohn embraced the 19th-century trend for travel: having visited Scotland (Fingal's Cave on the tiny isle of Staffa providing the inspiration for his Hebrides Overture), he travelled to Italy, soaking up folk music, dance and the weather, if this symphony is anything to go by. The first movement, Allegro vivace, must surely have been written after a day in the glorious sunshine, and it is credit to the orchestra's skill that this came through in its performance. The Andante con moto, in the key of D minor, begins with a recognisably hymn-like melody accompanied by a stepping bass line, and is said to have been inspired by Mendelssohn's observing a religious procession in Naples, whilst the third movement, Con moto moderato, is a minuet and trio and, whilst not detracting from the Italian theme, has no obvious regional inspiration. The final movement, a pulsating combination of the Roman saltarello and the Neapolitan tarantella, was executed superbly by the Philomusica, whose musicians remained precise in the impossibly fast triplets and hopping movements.

So, a mixed bag for the Oxford Philomusica and Marios Papadopoulos: a wobbly, yet serene first half and a much livelier, more precisely delivered second half. As Oxford's professional orchestra, it isn't quite at the standard of its London counterparts, but the programming in this concert was interesting, and the performance enjoyable.

***11