Oxford Sinfonia's summer concert at St Mary the Virgin programmed Mozart with Mahler, an interesting combination, especially since the Mahler 1st Symphony came in a slimmed-down guise for a more modest orchestra than the huge numbers for which Mahler symphonies habitually call.
We commenced with W.A. Mozart's famous Clarinet Concerto in A major with soloist Matthew Scott, an alumnus of and winner of glittering prizes at the Royal Academy of Music. Mr Scott was playing a basset clarinet, purchased, so he told me, not too long ago from the specialist wind instrument makers Howarth of London. Because of its extra length the player requires a little sling to hold it. The basset clarinet's lower range extends to written C, so intruding squarely into bassoon territory. Mr Scott, in a patterned navy-blue shirt, played his out-of-the-ordinary instrument to great effect, extracting from it a rich sound, most concentrated in the 'adagio' which commenced with a delicate intervention from the horns and growling cellos, but equally evident in the briskly modulated transitions and section closings of the 'allegro'. In this he had to articulate descending arpeggios right down to the extreme lower register; here and elsewhere he made his slick fingering and sculpted phrases seem effortless.
The orchestra's string section for the most part backed Mr Scott up effectively, though in the violin duet in the 'rondo' I found their sound rather stilted. Conditions for soloist and conductor were quite demanding since on this sticky summer evening the church interior was very hot and airless; conditions that no doubt challenged the ability of the soloist to produce the smooth breathing control that one hopes for and that gratifyingly we received from this dreamy music.
In the interval there was time to explore some of the numerous funerary stone tablets in the church: I discovered that John Radcliffe was buried in 1714 in the chancel. He was principal physician to Queen Anne (though apparently unable to assist in any of her 17 pregnancies producing a child who would live beyond the age of two) and founded the hospital that still bears his name.
Mahler's 1st Symphony was here arranged by Klaus Simon, and completed in 2006. I thought it stayed true to the character of the original which ordinarily calls for getting on for double the 41 players here in the Sinfonia. We had a single percussionist, trumpet and oboe, and only five cellos, but with a piano and harmonium doing the duty of replacing some of the lost textures. I enjoyed listening to Mahler’s drama and subtleties through fresh ears. I believe there's another arrangement by Erwin Stein out there, but it omits both the horn and bassoon. Mahler without at least one horn? Unthinkable!
The familiar, whispered start from the violins produced a "sound of nature", perhaps the waking up at the crack of dawn of a hay meadow on a May morning, and a sense of nature holding its breath. The movement ended with a few brassy chords from Diana Hinds' piano. The insistent scherzo introduced what the programme notes called its "galumphing rhythm" with the cellos sawing away at a staccato musical figure, full of driving downbeats that propelled the music forward, and was taken by conductor David Crown satisfyingly con moto. He was an unshowy figure with the baton, avoiding expansive gestures but attending to each section of his band and with care to the requirements of the marked tempo. There was never that feeling of rush which can be tempting for an amateur orchestra when confronted by an extended piece like this.
In the 'moderato' we heard soft piano notes combining with a solo double bass playing, of all things, the tune of the French nursery song 'Frere Jacques' which was then taken up by first the bassoons and then the cellos. The arching, halting theme that develops from it has a distinct feel to it of Russian music, I thought; Glazunov, perhaps, or Mussorgsky. The final movement blazed away with a discordant blast from the brass, timpani and cymbals that had affinities with, much later on, the clarion call that gradually spread over the whole orchestra and provided an inspiring end.