The St Peter's Chamber Orchestra, based at the eponymous college, is in its third year of life and will in early July make a five-date Alpine Tour of Slovenia, Austria and N. Italy to play Mahler's 9th Symphony in venues with Mahlerian connections, eg next to the three composing cabins that the composer famously employed for the purpose of seclusion. This St John the Evangelist date was therefore something of a preview.
The symphony dates from 1909, two years before Mahler's death aged 50 and is one of his blockbusters; the opening slow movement alone lasts for 25 minutes. The usual gargantuan Mahlerian orchestra was here slimmed down to a mere 25 or so players, and I wondered beforehand whether the sound would turn out on the thin side. But far, far from it: we heard a noble rendering by this student ensemble.
After an opening statement by the two horns, there was a brief moment where the strings were diffident and not quite together until they warmed up, and then the movement pushed forward under conductor John Warner, questing and lyrical. There was a slight feeling of early scratchiness from the two clarinets, but Eleanor Blamires' flute made a bold statement in her two extended solo passages – the deft clarity of her playing throughout was a highlight - and the big outburst with shrieking violins and then trombones and timpani is as chilling as it ought to be. Percussionist Miranda Davies – I remember her on the xylophone keeping up a restrained little jig to the music in a Debussy/Bruckner concert in May last year – was at her busiest in this first movement, switching at speed from big bass drum to triangle (with its beater, I think, between her teeth) and on to timpani. By now it was evident that Mr Warner would not be making of himself the focal point of the performance. His movements were restrained and precise, every one of them in the service of Mahler's score. He told me afterwards that he is concluding a Master's degree in Music at the University and intends to pursue a conducting career.
In the third movement the players were notably together despite the hesitations and abrupt changes of tack in the score. One of the first violins was Emma Lisney, 2016 Oxfordshire young musician prizewinner, sitting a long way forward on her chair, back a little straighter than that of her colleagues, right arm held a little higher, every inch the professional violinist-in-waiting. I also noted violinist Leo Appel, the 2017 under-18 competition winner.
Then in the first discordant 15 seconds alone of the 'Rondo-Burleske' there is enough material for a half-a-dozen fugues. There was an early call to order on the trumpet (Edward Liebrecht), followed by clean trills coming from the clarinets and sonorous blasts from the two horns, one of whom was Myrddin Rees Davies whom I know to be a skilled player and a 2016 Young Musician finalist. Mahler composed here such complex contrapuntal parts that even JS Bach would be envious. Later came exhilarating duets between first clarinets (Daniel Mort and Phoebe Potter) and then the oboe of Chloe Barnes, each time in conjunction with the flute and boosted by telling interventions from the pianist Carson Becke with the left hand.
For the long, concluding 'adagio', conductor and strings exerted themselves nobly in the main melody, long-breathed and hymn-like, both in length and difficulty demanding for players and audience alike. Nevertheless the latter was notably still and attentive, drinking in the sound generated by the intricate interplay between one cello, one viola and piano. Then, in the penultimate section, after the music comes to a dead halt a sotto voce cello is heard, succeeded by violins and violas leading to a lament that was taken by Mr Warner in 'largo' if not 'grave' tempo. You could have heard a pin drop in the capacious nave as the final notes were reduced and reduced and on to silence.
Markus Baumgartner from Munich, sitting in the reserved seats, told me that this 9 th Symphony is a favourite work of his father's. He concurred with me that the orchestra's gift to audiences on their Alpine Tour of their scintillating rendering of this masterwork of German music might do just a tiny bit to show that, the Brexit damage notwithstanding, we still have something of excellence to offer to Europe.