Two brightly-lit Russian scores framed a world premiere from Giulia Monducci in a programme that showcased the talents of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and the artistry of Martha Argerich.
She has long been associated with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto since recording it with Claudio Abbado. Fifty years on Argerich can still startle us with the dash and delicacy of her fingerwork, her clarity of tone and an undimmed intensity of expression. But neither did she impose herself or go for exaggerated effects. In a mostly compelling account she had a wonderfully supportive partnership with Marios Papadopoulos who did much to bring out the work’s chutzpah.
At the start smooth clarinets and silky strings beguiled the ear before a pent-up torrent of energy was unleashed. In the second-movement ‘Theme and Variations’ – abundant in polished instrumental solos – Argerich coolly dispatched vaulting leaps with consummate ease, and although one section may be marked meditative its languor strayed dangerously close to sedation. The Finale was no-less-impressive for its excitement and exotic colouring – the woodwinds didn’t hold back in their collective shrieking, although the cellists were surprisingly restrained when their turn came for Prokofiev’s big-hearted tune. By the end it wasn’t just the music’s cumulative tension that crowned this performance, but the undemonstrative virtuosity of Argerich, who stole the show with her leaping chords and demisemiquaver runs.
For encores, Argerich offered Liszt's transcription of Schumann's song 'Widmung' and one of Domenico Scarlatti's D-minor Sonatas.
Following the interval Monducci’s Versus proved enigmatic. Scored for woodwinds, two horns, timpani and strings, its five-minute span was inspired by the nature-nurture debate and its contribution to human behaviour. Comprised of short, fragmentary motifs, low grumblings in the strings offset by ghostly slithering supposedly to explore ideas on timbre and “internal and external forces at play within one’s identity”, the bird-like fluttering set within an otherwise brooding sounds may have been designed to point up the eerie opening to The Firebird. On these terms it succeeded.
In the second of Stravinsky’s three Suites from The Firebird – his breakthrough fairy-tale ballet-score first heard in Paris in 1910 – double basses gave out suitably dark intimations of the evil sorcerer Kaschei, but thereafter strings and woodwinds didn’t quite conjure a startling plumage. The ‘Round’ dances were given poetic and elegant treatment, but momentum periodically sagged and only resuscitated by the ‘Infernal Dance’ – which, despite its obvious excitement, illustrated the need for more rehearsal. Matters improved in a glowing ‘Berceuse’ where individual players impressed and Richard Dilley’s mellifluous horn solo delivered us to the triumphant ‘Final Hymn’.