Oxford Chamber Orchestra

Programme includes Brahms, Ravel & Beethoven
St Mary the Virgin, University Church, High Street, Oxford OX1 4BJ, Sat 18 May 2019

May 21, 2019
Quicksilver fingers beneath a starry ceiling

The Bartered Bride, the most celebrated of Smetana's eight operas, involves a young man bartering away his love interest for the princely-ish sum of 700 florins and comprises an unfeasible dollop of rank melodrama and coincidence. After a muted start, the violins having a kind of poking-out in low register, there comes a series of merry unison thrusts, frequently vivacissimo. I don't know that these musical lollipops kicking off a concert programme are much more than a bow to tradition. Of course they warm up the fingers of the strings, and in this case the programme's one of Eastern European music.

Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto was composed after a period of depression, and he went at it back-to-front: first the third movement and so on. Soloist Craig Greene brought out slowly but with great emphasis the lugubrious procession of eight chords serving as prelude to the first theme's surging cortège. The waves of crescendos and decrescendos must have kept a small army of Russian typographers busy for a week, but at times in this movement the balance of sound was not quite right. St Mary the Virgin with its oh-so-lofty, starry ceiling yawning above the musicians has tricky acoustics, and hereabouts at times the piano was rather elbowed out by Ben Winters' exuberant orchestra, numbering upwards of 40 despite its name.

In the adagio, the flute, followed by clarinet, sets the melody and the piano part falls into line, but thereafter the piano assumes ever-greater ascendancy. Greene has an attractive way, both visually and aurally, of stroking rather than hitting the right-hand keys when crossing his hands; and I also enjoyed the moment where he kept the last note of the adagio ringing out by means of the damper pedal. His quicksilver fingering in the finale was accomplished coolly, and then during the brilliant coda he played with marvellous fervour.

He told me afterwards that owing to pressure of work he had, until the rehearsal, not sat down at the piano since the previous Sunday; surprising enough, but even more surprising – and gratifying – was the sheer quality of his playing; wholly exceptional for someone who is not a full-time concert pianist.

Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, like the Rachmaninov, commences in sombre fashion, outlining the theme that will feature in all four movements. Winters, a busy figure with the baton, took the switch from andante to allegro smoothly, though when the clarinet and bassoon introduced the first subject I noted some harshness of tone in the former which was occasionally repeated elsewhere by the wind section generally. In the second movement the famous horn solo rang out loud and clear despite the horns being a bit tucked away at the rear, and the balletic waltz later on conjured up thoughts of The Sleeping Beauty. The conductor established a fine, driving rhythm in the finale for the rising phrases in the trombones and trumpets, and carried us on to the ending presto.

November 13, 2017
Chunky chords and a whirling dervish

I had assumed that Oxford Chamber Orchestra's choice of Brahms' Tragic Overture was to tie in with Remembrance Day, but conductor John Warner told me this was not so. The overture – a mini-symphony, really – received from him a suitably moody account, introduced by what the programme notes called aptly "two chordal exclamations". Amateur orchestras sometimes - often, even - suffer from a lack of conviction and vigour from the strings. Such was not the case here. The first and second violins were instantly up and at the opening bars, and there was plenty of thrust in the bass. Warner was until the summer an Oxford music student and now, summa cum laude, has embarked on a freelance conducting career. I heard his first-rate Mahler's Ninth Symphony at St John the Evangelist on 12th June this year. His conducting style visually is a compact one, unshowy but intense. I detected a marked degree of respect and affection towards him from his players suggestive of, among other virtues, a collaborative approach.

Carson Becke was the soloist for Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Becke, of Canadian extraction, is an Oxford-based teacher and postgraduate music student, and a Strauss specialist. This work from 1929 came towards the end of the jazz fever that was gripping Paris. This jazzy feel creates problems for a non-professional orchestra, and I think some experience of the genre is beneficial for the woodwind and brass. Here the concerto got off to a shaky start, with rather thin and quavering piccolo and flutes, and the woodwind section as a whole tended a little hereabouts towards the hurried and the shrill, though I felt its players had settled down by the end of the 'allegramente'.

Becke, however, was into his stride immediately, at first serving the purely orchestral function as written, then reappearing as a real soloist as the music took on both a Spanish and a balletic feel. The solemn little solo tune for harp was disappointingly muffled, but the solo piano, as though resenting the interruption, throws an arpeggio from one end of the piano to the other, Becke effected this with violence as the orchestra blared out – great stuff!

I've heard it said that Ravel, who had a keen interest in hypnosis, may have written the 'andante' as a musical representation of the hypnotic state. Certainly the extended solo part at its beginning could fit that idea. Becke delicately picked out the uninterrupted left-hand part, moving and swaying to the rhythm. The moment when the high, clear flute at last takes over the melody was a breathtaking one, followed by oboe, flute again and then bassoon. I enjoyed the cor anglais of Matthias Winkel when he repeated the long, opening melody. The finale was short, sharp and to the point, and our soloist went at the keys at breakneck pace, with much crossing of hands.

The dramatic opening statement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony is the most immediately recognisable of all his work; almost certainly of any symphony in the whole repertoire. It's interesting how the dramatic pauses that follow this rugged and uncompromising start qualify it as an introduction rather than a theme. The succeeding music is more notable, though, for pathos than drama. The horn fanfare that announces the second theme came out loud and clear – the horn section was excellent all evening.

The second movement releases the tension and is a set of variations on a theme presented by violas and cellos in unison. Its second theme was given a martial air by the trumpets (well-played throughout), horns and drums, then came doubting phrases on the violins. In the dark and mysterious scherzo, the composer strikes out with the theme on unison horns, supported by satisfyingly chunky chords from the orchestra's strings, cellos and basses booming nicely.

The victorious finale brought out the best of the orchestra. Warner built up quite a head of steam, with the piccolo and trombones prominent. I've seen it suggested that the blaze of sound symbolises a psychological battle won over the composer's increasing deafness. In mid-movement the violins came up with a hollow, almost ticking sound. The majestic march of the start then returned. The orchestra's sound was notably underpinned in the pounding finale by the timpani of Steffan Jones, by necessity a bit of a whirling dervish at his drums. This movement is, of course, the stuff of dreams for the timpanist. Whether the final affirmation of C major is over-emphatic in its repetitions is no doubt a matter of taste. To my ear the pudding is a bit over-egged, but Warner's avoidance of rhetorical hyperbole made for a very satisfying conclusion.

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