A cold night for a strong Passiontide at Merton programme, with not only a keen east wind nagging along Merton St, but also with a chilly and draughty chapel interior thrown into the bargain. The venue was bursting at the seams with concert-goers spilling over into temporary seats in the transept as we got under way with Ravel's
Tombeau de Couperin, in four short movements. A mellow harp features in the orchestra, and the wind section is as prominent as you would expect from this country during the period of the composer. The lead oboe enjoyed a plaintive solo in the Rigaudon, a type of Provençal country jig.
Next up was Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor from 1919, like the Ravel composed in the shadow of World War 1. While in living in London, Elgar had, when a southerly wind blew, been able to hear the distant rumble of the guns on the Western Front, a sound he never forgot.
Rebecca McNaught, a 2nd year Merton College student, was our soloist. Such was the impression she made that I asked her at the interval whether she had entered the 2016 Oxfordshire Concerto Competition for young musicians. Indeed she had, but got no further than the semi-finals, playing the Dvorak's Cello Concerto. O fortunate Oxford in its current talent pool if a musician of this promise can fail to bear away the glittering prize! Ms McNaught exuded emotional engagement and intense concentration as, seated at her instrument just at conductor Benjamin Nicholas' elbow, she led us through the sombre drama of the opening flourish, then moving on to the lament theme with its echoes both of the 'Enigma' and 'Symphony No.' The soloist dovetailed perfectly with the solo horn at the adagio's end. Mr Nicholas provided throughout an appropriately sympathetic orchestral response to the solo cello of Ms McNaught for whom it's easy to foresee a big future.
After the interval, Mozart's Requiem. In this case, the melancholy sub-text is not so much martial as related to the composer's own desperate financial woes, failing health and, of course, his solitary death. The Requiem is always best heard in a setting of religious dedication, in my view, and Merton Chapel is perfect for that purpose in respect of the loftiness and substantial volume of the space. The purple-robed Merton choir and glitter of the orchestra's brass section made a brave show in the warmly-lit chancel. To one end in the transept loomed the massive organ pipes, while at the east end the heads of the tenors and basses of the choir ended just below the altar painting, a swirling crucifixion scene by a follower of Tintoretto, I would say.
So the visual effect was assured. I've sat through too many
Requiems where the work's reputation and history have weighed too heavily on conductor and players, inducing a heaviness of tone and ponderousness of pace. Not here. Mr Nicholas set off at a brisk tempo which he maintained almost without exception to the conclusion. The 'Rex Tremendae' sequence was taken - appropriately - a little more slowly, allowing the cellos and basses to utter their full-throated growl, and then in the key 'Lacrimosa', with its dramatic outpouring of emotion, Mr Nicholas slowed again.
This requiem is really a piece for the choir, with fairly limited scope for the five soloists, but there was sufficient opportunity for soprano Cecilia Osmond to impress and make me regret her curtailed part here. Each section of the orchestra had its moment in the limelight: the plaintive trombone solo in the 'Tuba Mirum' and then the fiddles in the glorious 'Agnus Dei'. The choir was numerous and tuneful enough to fill to the brim the huge space with its sound. Inevitably, with singers of this age, it was a touch light in the baritone and bass section, but its members played their part nobly.
A memorable night!