St Peter's College is on a musical roll at present, and both conductor and soloist spring from that source for the autumn concert from The Ripieno Players (the name (Italian; 'stuffing') refers to the corps of a baroque orchestra, excluding the soloists). They were programming two big beasts of the repertoire from Beethoven and Mahler. The former's Piano Concerto No. 3 has Beethoven widening his musical horizon by stretching established forms in the way the soloist begins to assume the dominant role that was to become the hallmark of the work's successors later in the 19 th century.
The strong opening phrase from the strings boded well for their contribution – I thought the upper and lower strings the strongest section of the orchestra in both the works – with a response coming from the woodwinds that was a little frail in comparison. Conductor Joe Davies made an immediate visual impression. Leaning forward intently, demonstrative in gesture, it was apparent that the energy in the strings, unusually pronounced for an Oxford amateur orchestra, was deriving in substantial part from him. Attending to each instrumental grouping as appropriate, Mr Davies was everywhere at once, cajoling, driving and setting the tempo.
When soloist George Needham made his eventual entrance, he did so with three terse rising scales and then a powerful statement of the concerto's opening, established theme. Mr Needham likes to stoop assiduously over his keyboard, his long fingers often picking out the individual notes as though selecting the choicest oysters from a silver service buffet with a pair of ivory chopsticks. Towards the end of the movement he showed he had power to burn with a torrent of notes culminating in rising scales through, I think, four octaves; a fine rhetorical gesture.
In the 'largo', after the densely harmonised opening theme that's picked up and ornamented by the orchestra, Mr Needham turned to a florid passage, reminiscent of early Chopin, where, despite having to pack lots of notes into each bar, he never sounded hurried. In contrast, where Beethoven calls for brass and woodwinds to combine, again the latter displayed some uncertainty in the playing. For the brief cadenza near the end of the finale, the soloist embarked with a flourish on the series of ascending scales that lead to the exuberant ending, the notes spilling over one another like overflowing Veuve Cliquot.
Mr Needham told me afterwards about his repertoire and his preparation to play the concerto for the first time in public and that he's currently seeking a place at one of the UK conservatoires with a view to making a professional music career. I detected plenty of talent here and we'll see how it develops in the next two or three years.
Although the programme notes talked of the restrained size of orchestra needed for this Mahler symphony, its numbers here swelled to c. 60, closely packed into the space despite the removal of the piano. A jangling of sleigh bells, a little flurry of birdsong from the flutes – and is that a melody by Mozart? Not quite. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony might be his most classical in proportion, seemingly his most playful in style. But I'd say it contains plenty of poignant and brooding passages, too. Halfway through the opening movement the orchestra excelled when called upon by the composer for chamber moments, the five horns especially prominent, and we caught that characteristically full Mahler orchestral sound, including brief but fine solos from leader Emma Lisney whom I know to be a super-accomplished fiddler. Joe Davies gave full value, too, to the famous theme with its variations in the third movement.
When the big crescendo arrived, the bass drum put out a noble roll that they must have heard at the Dog and Duck in George St. Soprano Sofia Kirwan-Baez sang with poise and a pure tone the finale, an extended picture of heaven from the point of view of a child. Soloists sometimes struggle when faced with the huge volume of space at St Mary the Virgin, and for the first couple of verses Ms Kirwan-Baez could have done with rather more restrained instrumental accompaniment, some players slow to adjust to the changed playing circumstances. But she brought the symphony with grace to its hushed conclusion at last.