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Beethoven’s Eroica: An Oxford Festival Orchestra Review

Originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, in partnership with an orchestral arrangement of Schubert’s Ständchen, took on a different level of meaning in this concert dedicated to conductor Felix Kirkby’s mother.

I don’t quite understand the programming choice of Ständchen: sure, you couldn’t really get another piece more dissimilar to the Eroica; however, in the context of the concert, this wasn’t particularly convincing. As someone who particularly enjoys the song in its original form, as voice and piano as part of the song cycle Schwanengesang, I found the orchestration unengaging and lacking interest. For a strophic song, the text is of central importance: it keeps the work moving and gives it meaning. Because of this, when the meaning is lost, the music loses something too. The arrangement wasn’t helped by the almost painfully slow tempo that Kirkby initiated which resulted in the work feeling like it was wading through mud.

Despite the tempo, Ständchen was performed well with a nice sense of shape, contrast, and warmth. The players imitated the piano accompaniment well and conveyed the beauty of Schubert’s melody impressively, although there were a couple of moments where intonation went slightly awry. In terms of vibrato, although it is particularly brave to perform it as such, I like Schubert played with little vibrato – too much just makes his music sound overly romantic and slushy. At moments, the vibrato was just a little too thick for my liking; however, the interplay between the instruments was handled nicely and Kirkby controlled the orchestra with poise and elegance.

Beethoven’s Eroica is a mighty composition, and to perform the work exceptionally is a particularly difficult feat. Although Oxford Festival Orchestra’s performance was generally excellent and certainly had some very nice moments and exceptional playing, in particular by the horns and the flute soloist, I felt that something was lacking throughout the work as whole.

It was pleasing to see the cellos positioned within the period style seating, next to the first violins, and this certainly helped with the blending of the sound of the orchestra. I would have liked a little more lower strings in the majority of the symphony as they often felt underpowered. Generally speaking, the strings as a body were crisp, clean, and tight, but I thought that they were a little underwhelming and lacked weight, especially in comparison to the brass and woodwind. Despite this, they produced a very nice sound through the extreme range of dynamics that Beethoven requires for his score; and in partnership across the orchestra, there were moments of sheer heroicism and power that were the pure epitome of Beethoven’s music.

I felt pauses in between movements (except for the gap between the third and fourth) to be a little excessive. The tempos of the different movements I found a little on the slower side and desired a little more drive; however, within individual movements the fluctuations and pauses in tempos were handled with precision.

Within the second movement, the Marcia funebre, the string opening is so exposed that intonation, bowing, and control is so prominent. The level of control was excellent and, despite the rare moment of off intonation, the evocation of the funeral was certainly fore fronted within this performance. The oboe solo was beautiful, although I would have like a little more articulation on the dotted rhythms – almost making them double dotted. The shift into the middle, major-mode section was handled beautifully and there was a nice sense of lean into the appoggiaturas. The brass were excellent really emphasising the drama and power of the traditional funeral horns, and there were some lovely build up into the tutti cadences throughout the movement. There were moments were the strings felt a little thin in texture and I would have enjoyed more attack in the return of the opening material within the ternary/sonata form (depending on how you read the structure) of the movement.

The scherzo and trio was a particular highlight. The contrast between tutti and other orchestral textures was excellent and the music was clean and the articulation was tight. The horn calls are moments of magic within the context of the work, and they were definitely a highlight within this performance. They were played with precision, warmth, and colour and I could see the sighs of relief from the horn players after each horn call. Perhaps a little more contrast in the tempo of the trio, as is common within these forms, might of added something to the performance; however, this movement was a delight.

The timpanist was excellent – I always love it when the timpanist really goes for it within a piece and they did just that. much to my delight. The flute solo in the last movement was played with rapid speed and immaculate control and articulation. The brass, once again, were fantastic (helped only by Beethoven’s writing) and there was a good sense of contrast. I felt the finale was quite restrained generally despite the tightness and clarity of the performance, and I would have liked a little more freedom and expression in certain moments such as the shift into the dramatic minor mode.

I really enjoyed the concert and thought that overall the performance was excellent. What was missing for me was a sense of freedom. While everything was beautifully clear, together and tight, it all felt a little restrained and held back. I wanted more ‘roughness’ or grit (if these are the right words to describe it). You just have to let the music drive and the players to have such liberty throughout the entirety of the symphony. Still very much a pleasure to watch and hear.





Well that was a particularly mean spirited review overall. Elitism is never a good trait, and in the context of this review anything good said is lost in the overall sense of negativity.


Is this really elitism or just someone with a really good critical ear?

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