On his deathbed Frederic Chopin was reported as having said:
"Play Mozart in memory of me and I will hear you".
It's not known of what works he was particularly thinking, but those forming the programme from Maundy Thursday evening's Oxford Philharmonic concert must surely have been in his mind. The Clarinet Concerto in A major and the Requiem Mass in D minor, respectively WA Mozart's last completed work and his last unfinished work, constitute, along with his last piano concerto, No.27, the evidence that the one-time child prodigy was, in his 35th year and plagued by financial worries and illness, still innovating and always improving.
For the Clarinet Concerto, the Philharmonic numbered just 29, and conductor Owen Rees took us away smartly into the introductory tutti at a scrupulously-maintained allegro pace. Soloist Mark Simpson, once of St Catherine's College, chose here to use the basset-clarinet, whose lower range extends to written C – I believe current research indicates that low B may have been used by Mozart. He did so to great effect, extracting from his instrument a rich sound at the bottom of the register, most concentrated in the adagio but equally evident in the briskly modulated transitions and section closings of the allegro. The demanding runs were perfectly delivered yet never overstated. I enjoyed watching Mr Simpson at work. Standing four-square to one side of the podium, on occasion he wielded his clarinet in the manner of a mariner on board a Thames Estuary lighter, now rolling with the swell, now bracing himself against the turbulence.
My neighbour Markus Baumgartner spoke to me at the interval of his enjoyment of the way the players as an ensemble complemented the soloist while also retaining individuality section by section. Professor Rees judged just the appropriate length of pauses after Mr Simpson's expressive shaping of each melody. The highlight for me was the final return of the adagio's principal theme, which Mr Simpson played in a super-hushed manner and slowing almost to a dead halt, just audible in the silence, with the orchestra responding with touchingly quiet gentility.
The Sheldonian was bursting at the seams for this Easter concert, and a buzz of anticipation zipped through the upper tier where the audience were packed in tight as sardines as the players came out for Mozart's Requiem, the orchestra bolstered by three trombones, two basset horns and Tristan Fry's timpani. The choir of Queen's College numbered 35, and how nice to note that sopranos and altos were evenly matched by tenors and basses. I've attended several choral concerts lately where the male voices have been infelicitously scarce. I've also sat through a number of Requiems where the work's reputation and complex compositional legend have seemed to bear down heavily on conductor and orchestra, inducing a torpidity of tone and elephantine pace. Not here. Professor Rees set off at a brisk tempo which he maintained almost without exception to the end. The choir, primed by four rehearsals in March and extra practice obtained during their vacation tour of Taiwan, delivered the Dies irae [day of anger] with suitable full-throated roar, the flexibility of their young voices a major advantage here, later on in the choppy welter of sound of the Confutatis maledictis, and in the sudden, swooping climaxes of the Agnus Dei.
This is primarily a choir piece, with limited scope for the four soloists, but I enjoyed the warm, full voice of soprano Sophie Junker from Namur in Belgium. Tenor William Blake was, however, a disappointment; rather frail in volume and bland in tone, somewhat swallowed up in the marvellous close harmonies of the soloists together for the Benedictus, in which the cellos and basses, prominent all evening, provided a marvellously sonorous underpinning. This was another instance of the significant improvement in the orchestra's strings department in the last two or three years. The Benedictus was preceded by the Lacrimosa, perhaps the passage of maximum longing and yearning, and here Tristan Fry drove the tempo forward from the timpani.
On the day that Jesus of Nazareth presided at the Last Supper before proceeding to the Garden of Gethsemane for his final vigil, this was a noble rendering of a work that conveys an epic sense of the mysteries of life and death, one of the two or three topmost musical summits of Western high culture.