The Oxford Philharmonic likes to move out of its Sheldonian base at least once every summer. On Saturday, south of the High St at Merton College chapel, its strings section played a programme that looked appealing on paper and turned out in execution to be a great treat. One of the major planks of the orchestra's five year plan has been to boost the quality of its strings, and this programme was another showcase demonstration of the success of the initiative; a source of tremendous satisfaction to its Music Director, Marios Papadopoulos, who was looking on and listening from the choir stalls. The chapel interior is instantly notable for its great height, and the length of the choir, while enabling the Philharmonic to pack in a numerous audience. The place was packed out which does mean that those towards the rear are not only a little disengaged from the players at the east end, but sight lines too tend to be less than viewer-friendly.
We began with Elgar's Serenade for Strings in E minor , a work from his early 30s, a period of frustrating marking time for the composer prior to his Enigma Variations lift-off. The heart of this is its fine 'largo', whose seriousness rather belies the Serenade cognomen which suggests something lighter in tone. One of the most obvious differences between the professional and amateur string ensemble is the ability of the former to push out maximum energy from the very first bars without the slightest hint of warming-up hiatus, and that's what we got here with the 'allegro piacevole' [pleasant liveliness], with Yuri Zhislin, Co-Concertmaster of the orchestra, directing as well as playing.
I've seen Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge described as "a young man [he was 24] trying to do everything" in this tribute to his early teacher. There's something in this comment: each of the 11 variations differs significantly as indeed it should do. Britten took Bridge's theme and to each variation he attached a feeling of admiration for his pedagogue: integrity, energy, charm, humour, tradition and so on. A work for a string orchestra, but our players went at it wholeheartedly as if it they formed a full-team orchestra; not in respect of the volume, but the roundness of the sounds produced. To indicate the variety contained in a 25 mins piece: Variation 1 made an ominous beginning, full of pizzicato notes, 2 was a quick march, 4 had the violins producing a marked guitar effect, 6 was a waltz, first fast then slow, 7 had the feel of The Flight of the Bumblebee, 8 was a funeral march, while in the finale growling basses and singing violins at the top of their register returned to the theme.
Nick Breckenfield's ever-excellent programme notes reminded me that J.S. Bach wrote surprisingly few concertos, and of those, only two for solo violin. The quality of this Violin Concerto in A minor was such that makes this dearth regrettable. Yuri Zhislin was the soloist and after the opening in ritornello form, with its repetitions of orchestral tutti, he launched himself into the glorious 'andante' with its sophisticated interplay between soloist and accompaniment, and the structure of the piece to my mind as a non-Bachian was much less mathematical than is often the case with Bach. Purcell's Chacony [or Chaconne; a stately dance] in G minor followed, suitably melancholic but noble music; I say this since Purcell had recently and while still in his early twenties been appointed Composer in Ordinary of the Royal Twenty-Four Violins. Some title, that! I think it may have been music to accompany a drama – presumably a tragedy, given the tempo and mood of the music.
Finally we came to Grieg's Holberg Suite, a particular favourite of mine, and just bursting with melody. The ensemble gave the work drive and made it ring. The 'prelude was thick with whirring violas, and then the familiar sarabande seemed almost to sigh and revel in its own beauty. The following air, the key section, had the strings building tension, giving it all they'd got as they pushed out a great depth of sound, full of emotion. Then on to the rigaudon which boasts a hornpipe at beginning and end, appropriate as the music glided into a calm harbour.