The last time I attended a concert at St Michael and All Angels, in November, the church was airy, light and warm. This time it was airy, light and cold, with a nagging draught blowing in from Lonsdale Rd, courtesy of Storm Ewan, so that those in the audience without coats sat with blueish noses and semi-pinched cheeks. This was a programme of Romantic music, in which genre the Oxford Studio Orchestra tends to have its being, and a fairly novel departure this time was the presence of a local soloist playing a Mozart piano concerto. The orchestra, in common with most amateur ensembles, generally prefers to play music requiring more numerous corps than is needed for a Mozart concerto, but Bill Manville, the Orchestra's welcoming Chair, told me the opportunity to accompany a prominent local solo pianist was too good to miss.
We began with Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy (1876). The subject tends to conjure up the names of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, so this was an interesting programming novelty. Svendsen had the misfortune of having the one and only manuscript of his 3rd Symphony thrown in the fire by his wife after she intercepted a bouquet of flowers from an unknown female admirer. Romeo and Juliet has an imposing introduction followed by a serious theme. The initial sound from the strings was scratchy and scraping, but conductor Christopher Fletcher-Campbell was able to pick up the pace, and the tone improved. He was a vivacious figure with the baton, giving clear and precise direction to his discrete sections – just what an amateur ensemble requires.
Soloist Mami Shikimori appeared in a pale blue chiffon dress and we settled down for Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major (K488), which was probably played by Mozart himself at its premiere. I wondered whether the chilly temperature might affect the flexibility of her fingers, and she told me later that she had been aware of it. I thought she played a little stiffly in the opening 'allegro', perhaps not surprisingly, and we missed a little of the tender-heartedness of the music with its chromatic swoon, though later in the finale she immediately captured its lively and bustling character, its ebb and flow. Clifford Curzon used to say that nothing displays a pianist's quality like a Mozart slow movement. Here the 'adagio' was introduced by Ms Shikimori with the utmost feeling. With the soloist often heard against the barest of accompaniments, she brought subtle inflections of light and shade to the several series of repeated notes that pepper the music.
Connoisseurs of exotica may like to know that this concerto was Joseph Stalin's favourite piece of music. He fell asleep to it on the day in 1924 that he began his push for absolute power in the Soviet Union, following the death of Lenin. On March 5, 1953, Stalin died in his bed. Spinning on his record player his doctor's found Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, performed by Maria Yudin, his pet pianist.
Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 was composed in a creative burst of two months in 1889. It's a grateful work for an orchestra – for instance in the 'allegro con brio' alone there's a broad, singing tune for cellos, an introductory fanfare for the strings and a little bird-call on solo flute. I thought the wind section of the orchestra to be its most impressive element. We heard expressive contributions from the bassoons and oboes, the latter for example in the peasant waltz in the 3rd movement and the former in a study in strict counterpoint in the opening. The flutes of the excellent Annette Mayer and Jane Settle were prominent throughout, whether in their falling two-note pattern in the 'adagio' or in the opening where the flute solo tune is repeated and then handed over to the brass before being collared by bassoons and lower strings. Mr Fletcher-Campbell maintained a brisk pace, well up to the tempo markings, and delivered with elan the boisterous, if abrupt final bars.