This post-Brexit festival concert was something of a valedictory event for Daniel Hyde, the grandly-titled Informator Choristarum ('choirmaster' to everyone else) at Magdalen College who in September will be fleeing the groves of British academe for the brasher pastures of St Thomas Church on New York's 5th Avenue. A couple of weeks ago the Sheldonian rang to the sound of Haydn's Harmoniemesse; today it was the turn of the Missa in Angustiis (Mass in a Time of Worries, aka the Nelson Mass), along with the Paukenmesse perhaps Haydn's greatest mass.
It's a piece primarily for choir and soprano, with the mezzo, tenor and bass soloists taking a subsidiary role. The soprano is mainly used in short bursts rather than extended arias, though her florid appeals for mercy in the coloratura passages of the 'Kyrie' stand out, as did her gorgeous duet with the bass in the Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi. In Elizabeth Weisberg, we enjoyed a singer with volume to spare, pure tone and sense of drama. Her quality made that duet into something of a mismatch since Will Pate's bass was short of power and all but inaudible at the bottom of the range - unfortunate.
Mr Hyde's style is undemonstrative, even minimalist, but he conjured up a strongish sound from his all-male choir of 30, of whom 16 were trebles. If the trebles in the 'passus et sepultus est' section in the Credo were a little insubstantial in combination, then in both the glorious 'Benedictus' and the lyrical harmonies of the fugue in the 'Agnus Dei', they shone brightly.
After the interval came firstly a descriptive short piece by Cecilia McDowell to illustrate JMW Turner's masterpiece Rain, Steam and Speed of 1844; a key work in the sense that the genesis of the French Impressionist school must have been much more uncertain without its pathfinder example. We followed the locomotive over Maidenhead Viaduct as the composer suggests, 'pressing powerfully forwards... [and] rattles to a full orchestral crescendo'. This was melodic and evocative, a charming piece.
The choir returned, now swollen to the tune of 115 strong, the London Mozart Players were similarly reinforced and conductor Jon Cullen had taken over for the second half of the programme. He made an immediate impression, bounding onto the dais like a springbok roaming the high veldt, his beaming face lighting up the scene. The running time of Verdi's Te Deum is no more than 15 mins, but it packs a wallop. Its opening section of quasi-Gregorian chant was continued responsorially by the whole choir in unison, and in the passages of blazing outcry the choir gave it everything; boosted by four trombones, the effect was thrilling. For a moment I thought must be attending an Aida at the Coliseum. Verdi wrote that:
'it is usually sung during grand, solemn and noisy ceremonies for a victory or a coronation etc'.
A Brexit victory, was it? The coronation of Prime Minister Boris? Given that Oxford voted 70% to remain, that seems far-fetched. Maybe the concert organiser mislaid his crystal ball and should have programmed Verdi's Requiem instead.