With the Oxford Philomusica, Sheldonian, Oxford

2001-08-06 / The Times, London / Geoff Brown

J. S. BACH Piano Concerto in d minor, BWV 1052

Saturday’s soloist was supposed to have been Rosalyn Tureck, high priestess of Bach, octogenarian, who nowadays plays in public roughly as often as pigs fly. But the doctor said no, and so this concert — prelude to the third Oxford Philomusica International Piano Festival, a banquet of lectures, masterclasses, and recitals — welcomed Angela Hewitt to the platform.

Even before she hit the keys she had us transfixed. She swept elegantly towards the Steinway in a dark red sheath, with satin shoes to match: she was Lucifer in women’s clothes, making things hot at a 1930s cocktail party. The devil was in her playing too as she launched upon Bach’s D minor keyboard concerto, BWV 1052, surging forward strong and clean, then deliciously lightening the notes into the most playful of dances.

Articulation and phrasing matched the piano’s mellow tone. Dynamics were graded by the subtlest degrees. The magic continued whenever Bach’s quaver cascade stopped: out of the slow movement’s simple solo line she sculpted something moonstruck and mysterious.

With all this, Hewitt still had a hand spare to bring in the Oxford Philomusica. The orchestra, now three years old, contains glorious individual players: Bozidar Vukotic’s cello or Anthony Robb and Monica MacCarron’s carolling flutes in Bach’s fourth Brandenberg alone told us that. The ensemble sound can be less ravishing, with spots of loose co-ordination and undernourishment in the violins. In Hewitt’s Bach, though, the orchestra breathed as one, engaged in harmonious dialogue with a remarkable soloist who took no note for granted.

Outside the Bach keyboard concerto, John Georgiardis, the Philomusica’s leader, directed from his violin. Others might have made more of the rhythms in Purcell’s Chacony; but the majestic slow dance still cast a spell, enhanced by the Sheldonian Theatre’s warm acoustic. In the first allegro of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, Vukotic’s crisp cello lit up the bass line; in the final Pastorale, Georgiardis at first sounded too sweet. Luckily the sugar content declined as the movement edged to its close.

The Philomusica’s tone coarsened a tad as the second half advanced, though vivacity won the day in the first of Handel’s Op 6 concerto grossi, and Vivaldi’s Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro was impressively sombre.
Flutes won the honours in the Brandenberg. But the concert belonged to that devil in the red dress.