The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven and Shostakovich

Picture (c) Alexander Robinson

Richard Whitehouse on the young, thriving Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert, pairing Beethoven with Shostakovich at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 26 September

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.4 (1806)

Shostakovich: Symphony no.5 (1937)

Jean Paul Ekins (piano), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

This evening’s concert given by the Oberon Symphony, the orchestra’s tenth such event since its inception, brought together a concerto which is poised expressively between Classical and Romantic eras, then a symphony bridging the divide between personal and public expression.

For all its popularity, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 remains a tough challenge in terms of its emotional understatement and often elusive interplay of soloist and orchestra. There was no denying Jean Paul Ekins’ technical adroitness, his crystalline tone and limpid passage work being rarely in doubt, but equally a lack of expressive variety and a degree of preciousness in terms of phrasing that gave the opening movement – steady if by no means stolid in its underlying tempo – a uniform and even unyielding profile; the highlight being a cadenza that dovetailed ideally into the surging coda. Not so a rather prosaic transition from slow movement into finale, yet the dialogue of the former was (rightly) one of stark contrast and the latter exuded ample impetus through to its rather awkwardly negotiated final chords.

Throughout this reading, Samuel Draper proved an astute and attentive accompanist – before he and the orchestra came into their own with Shostakovich’s Symphony no.5. Still the most often heard of what is now among the most familiar of symphonic cycles, its performance has grown more difficult over time given those extra-musical ‘interpretations’ to have been foisted on its musical content. Having steered an involving course between its yearning and plaintive main themes, Draper infused the first movement’s development with a purposeful momentum so that the climactic reprise unfolded as an arc of decreasing intensity towards a coda of aching suspense. Trenchant in forward motion, the scherzo was dispatched with a keen irony and, in its trio, appealingly deadpan playing from leader Richard Gratwick.

A degree of thinness in string tone was by no means to the disadvantage of a slow movement which eschewed widescreen emotional expression for intense inwardness, not least with the chorale-like transformation of its initial theme in a central passage of real eloquence. Nor was the ensuing climax found wanting, as Draper secured a searing clarity across the strings prior to a wistfully resigned close. Even finer was the finale: the hardest movement to bring off, its tempo changes worked ably in terms of a cumulative overall structure – making nonsense of any claim it lacks formal focus; with a palpable emergence from the restless searching at its centre towards an apotheosis which evinced the fraught inevitability that was surely intended. The closing bars then drove home the work’s defiantly individual stance with bracing resolve.

A gripping account of a piece which should never be taken for granted, not least in its knife-edge ambivalence, and that found the Oberon SO at its most committed. Draper had begun by noting the 75th anniversary on this day of the suicide of philosopher Walter Benjamin – the victim of a political and cultural intolerance that has by no means abated, and to whose memory this performance was dedicated. Such a procedure can risk indulgence, though here the sincerity of his remarks was more than matched by the conviction of the music-making.

The next Oberon concert takes place on 5th December 2015, where the orchestra will play Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony. Here they are in the composer’s Fifth:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

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