The Orchestra of St John's and its tireless founder and conductor John Lubbock are celebrating their 50th birthday this year, and this was one of its 'Music in the Abbey' autumn festival dates. Concert seating in Dorchester Abbey faces the choir, whose east end is described by Jennifer Sherwood in Pevsner's Buildings of England - Oxfordshire as "magnificent.... the use of sculpture combined with tracery is without parallel on this scale not only in England but in Europe". A big claim, though Nikolaus Pevsner was known neither for hyperbole nor for parochialism. For those who don't know the Abbey and/or its concert profile, the audience space is a pillar-free zone, the acoustics excellent, the welcome at the door warm, administrator Simon Payne's concert programme was a model of its kind, and the refreshment stall both gratis and well-stocked. No wonder 350 of the good folk of S. Oxfordshire had turned out despite the best efforts of Storm Brian to knock us down en route to the abbey door.
Max Bruch with his 1st Violin Concerto has his being in much the same niche as Johann Pachelbel with his Canon and Charles Widor with his Toccata. That is to say, they are known for one work only and the rest, to coin a phrase, is silence. The OSJ headline for the concert referred only to "Bruch: Violin Concerto". Actually, Bruch wrote three of them. He was a professional musician, teacher and conductor as well as composer; a younger contemporary of Johannes Brahms.
Jan Schmolk, originally from Freiburg in Germany but long since UK-domiciled, was our solo violin. Leader of the OSJ, he's also Principal Second Violinist at the Royal Opera House. Mr Schmolck played with instant feeling the opening, lyrical solo line above the muted orchestral accompaniment, and then a contrasting melody, played with pizzicato cellos and bass. Mr Lubbock was at pains by gesture to permit no hint of this all-professional orchestra overshadowing the soloist. As he played, Mr Schmolck swayed from side to side, frequently bending his knees, just as though the force 8 gale outside had somehow sneaked through chinks in the ancient walls of the church and was buffeting him in its grasp. The prelude (as Bruch called the first movement) built to a peak and then died away, leaving space for a fine cadenza. Mr Schmolck then excelled in the 'adagio' which he has to carry almost entirely until relieved from his labours by a brief orchestral passage in the middle. He was unhurried as he introduced the three themes. In the finale, he brought out its jubilant quality, in particular the march-like theme which is then varied by a more singing section introduced by the orchestra and then repeated by the soloist.
If the concerto was bursting with euphony, how is one to describe Beethoven's Eroica Symphony? Simon Payne's notes offered a full account of the symphony's Napoleonic homage associations; let us hope the Emperor was unaware that the 'adagio assai' was a funeral march otherwise he might have taken it personally; and who can tell what a despot in a rage may do? The two initial thumping chords soon gave way to a quasi-pastoral mood; one of the features here being the frequently changing mood of the music. Mr Lubbock conducted without a baton, preferring sinuous gestures with both hands. Throughout the concert I noted that he followed the marked tempos conscientiously. There was no question of his imposing a pace of his own at variance with the score, a circumstance far from unknown vis a vis conductors of long standing with their ensemble. The outstanding moment came just before the recapitulation where the orchestral texture dwindled to little more than a whisper from the violins before a distant horn-call recalled the opening theme.
The Funeral March growled into its stately rhythm, with all sections of the orchestra heavily involved. I thought the horn section of four particularly good, notably towards the end of the 'scherzo' in dialogue with the strings. The flutes of Samantha Pearce and Christine Hankin were also prominent in the passage of running scales among the set of variations in the finale. The abiding sensation at the end was that the OSJ's brief of providing top-quality music beyond the confines of the Oxford city boundaries had been handsomely fulfilled.