Sunday's Oakham School concert at the Sheldonian was an object lesson in ambition, programme planning and skilful execution, assembled by conductor Peter Davis, the school's Director of Music, and his colleagues, and appreciated by a large audience of associates of the school and Oxford concert-goers.
First up was Haydn's Insanae et vanae curae, a suitably admonitory motet for Lent, in which Mr Davis put down a style marker: vigorous and always attentive to each section of the musicians in front of him. Mr Davis suggested throughout the concert that he was engaged in a tripartite, symbiotic relationship. Just as he gave out waves of energy to his players and singers, so also did he derive energy from his rapt audience.
There followed the brief but joyful Trumpet Concerto in E flat major by Haydn, with soloist Adam Hebditch. I'd listened to Wynton Marsalis's playing of this at home in the morning, which might have been a mistake. But no - Mr Hebditch played with an elegant, boldly projected tone, making child's play of the difficulties, particularly in the cadenza in the opening allegro. The pace was possibly taken just a touch fast in the contrasting andante - perhaps Mr Hebditch had been as surprised as I had been by the prolonged applause at the end of the allegro! The icing on the cake was the excellent programme note on the concerto by our soloist himself. This is a name to watch out for.
JS Bach's Der Himmel Lacht, Die Erde Jubilieret (Heaven laughs!) cantata comprises nine short movements for orchestra, choir and three soloists. This one was composed for Easter Sunday in 1715 at the ducal court of Weimar in eastern Germany. The very numerous choir was confronted almost immediately by the difficult 'Der himmel lacht!' section and coped valiantly. The highlight of the cantata is the tricky, extended aria 'Letzte Stunde, brich herein' for soprano and oboe. It was sung with clear tone by Alva Muris. Though she struggled a little with the notes at the bottom of the range, she was supported by oboist Jemma Bausor, demonstrating admiral breathing control. I also enjoyed the contrasting tenor of Edwin Lambert and bass from Alex Bower-Brown.
After the interval, Haydn's Missa in Angustiis, the Nelson Mass. What a thrill for these Rutland young people to be performing this, one of Haydn's supreme works, in the very place where 225 years ago the great man conducted. Haydn's arrival in England on 1st January 1791 caused a stir - as much as the fact that Haydn was greeted at a court ball at St. James Palace by the Prince of Wales who afforded the composer with a visible bow - an unheard of thing at the time. On 6th July the great man travelled to Oxford to receive an Honorary Doctorate for Music from the University. The solemn celebration in the Sheldonian, already at that date 122 years old, lasted for three days. Haydn conducted on the third day a performance of his new symphony - now known as No. 92.
The musicians here were joined by Miranda Heldt, an alumna of the School, who has already an impressive pedigree and, as a little piece of exotica, thrills the patrons of London's Ritz Hotel three nights a week as its resident singer. Mr Davis led his choir through the menacing 'Kyrie' - Mr Lambert's excellent tenor shone here, though the timpanist seemed to be suffering from a bit of an adrenalin rush, banging away furiously as if a spectator on the cliifs at Cape Trafalgar itself - on to the feeling of loss and desolation of the 'et sepultus est' and the beauty of the 'Agnus Dei', the choir never once flagging. I've attended many Nelson Masses and have four or five recorded versions, and Miss Heldt's soprano was as good as I've heard. She filled every last cubic centimetre of the space, her voice agile over Haydn's awkward semi-quaver twists. In the successive solos by bass and soprano from the 'qui tollis' her tone was pure; then in the glorious 'et incarnatus est', perhaps the very kernel of the entire Mass, she put her heart and soul into it.