The Oxford University Press has c.2170 employees working in Oxford. Of those, some 40 to 50 are active members of the non-auditioning OUP choir, attending weekly rehearsals for two public concerts a year under conductor Malcolm Pearce who was Head of Music at Magdalen College School for 26 years. Before this Haydn, Mozart and Gounod concert with a wind section theme at St John the Evangelist, Mr Pearce told me he views his OUP job as being to "inform, educate and entertain". Before a single note was heard or played on Saturday, he'd made serious inroads in his first two tasks by virtue of his exceptionally interesting programme notes.
We commenced with Josef Haydn's Te Deum in C, a fast-moving hymn of praise interpreted here by the choir in the right spirit of joyful celebration, though, as on the last occasion when I heard the Oxford Sinfonia, the violins and violas seemed to hit the ground walking unsteadily rather than running, producing a bit of scratchiness in the opening section. Then came two tantalizing short works from Mozart, his Kyrie in D and Ave Verum Corpus. The opening and close of the Kyrie is so reminiscent of the famous Requiem, specifically of that work's Agnus Dei, and in no way inferior to it. In the hushed Ave Verum Corpus the choir delivered a smooth harmony, tested by Mozart's nonpareil ability suddenly to achieve a pitch of emotional intensity with virtually no preamble.
The choir now vanished and the orchestra dissolved into Gounod's Petite Symphonie for nine-piece wind band, in the classical style. Gounod had English connections, having (like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro) been exiled from France by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. While in exile he composed songs and piano trifles suitable for the Victorian drawing-room. The Petite Symphonie was a delight from start to finish as the tempo jumped from adagio to allegretto, andante to allegretto. This andante cantabile comprises a gorgeous melody, with the solo flute of Peter Robertson leading the way, producing a silky tone and demonstrating impeccable breathing control. Mr Robertson is a technology entrepreneur who hopes to turn professional musician. I also enjoyed the bubbling, spiky oboe of Wendy Marks, a local semi-pro player and teacher.
After the interval came the piece de resistance, Haydn's Harmoniemesse ('wind mass'). This was Haydn's final large-scale choral work since illness debilitated him in the last seven years of his life. When I commented to Mr Pearce that this mass is less frequently heard that the Missa in Tempore Belli or the Nelson Mass, he replied half-jokingly: "The Nelson Mass is cheaper!"
He was referring to Haydn's scoring for the Harmoniemesse for a substantial wind presence - two each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons. Mr Pearce conducted a performance which conveyed all the freshness, joy and optimism of this music. If, in my view, not quite attaining the sublime heights of the two aforementioned masses, it is still a pearl and demonstrates Haydn's creativity undimmed.
Anna Shackleton (soprano), Charlotte Tetley (mezzo), Robert Jenkins (tenor) & Peter Collins (bass) were the soloists who, in the absence of large-scale arias, blended with each other and the orchestra. But this is a showpiece for the chorus, and from their first dramatic entry in the Kyrie, they gave it their best. If they faltered a little in the complex harmonies of the 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus et seq.' of the Gloria, not quite reaching to the high notes, they excelled earlier in the beautiful 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' and the later 'Crucifixus etiam pro nobis' in the Credo. Those exultant high B flats in the final 'Dona nobis pacem' remained with me as I left the church.