Had the wraith of Sergei Rachmaninov from his estate SE of Moscow or forebears of Gustav Host from Latvia descended upon Broad St on Wednesday to oversee the Lent Term concert from the Oxford University Philharmonia, they would no doubt have been unmoved by the snow and searing winds all around. We soft Oxonian, however, blanched at the blizzard blasting down Broad St, yet still the Sheldonian was all but packed on this last day of meteorological winter, a heartening testament to the attractive evening programme and to the enduring appeal of serious music to the predominantly young audience.
The concert featured a couple of modern classics composed within 17 years of each other, and preceded by a burst of avant-garde, polyrhythmic music in the form of Atmospheres (1961) from the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti, inspired by his experimentation earlier in his career with early electronic music. The c. 80-strong orchestra produced a drifting harmony rather than any discernible melody. If that was a representation of a beehive effect, it put me in mind of Wolfgang Buttress' 32-layer installation Hive in Kew Gardens, with its audio links to beehives located around the gardens. Ligeti confronted us with seeping textures, one oozing into the other like a dissolving honeycomb before one's eyes, with two players seemingly brushing the exposed brass wires of upright pianos to obtain a novel effect. This was a bold programming choice, and an intriguing opener.
For Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 the soloist was Cédric Ploix, a French pianist who has studied piano at the Conservatoire de Lyon and the Université de Montréal. He is now a DPhil student in Modern Languages and juggles a music career with his studies.
He produced with quiet vigour the tolling bell-like chords that introduce the work and then increased their intensity until surging arpeggios launch the famous main theme from the violins and violas. Ploix, dressed in a blue suit with a narrow bow tie, was a notably still figure at the keyboard. Playing from memory, he later told me he had been selected in November by audition from 30 candidates to fulfill the solo spot at this concert. He had been practising almost daily for three months prior to his four rehearsals with the orchestra. He was fluent in the transition to the second subject as the tempo accelerated. With his careful modulations of tone and volume through the glittering piano part, Ploix minimised the repetitions that sometimes characterised Rachmaninov early in his career. Conductor Hannah Schneider had the strings up and running hard from the opening bars, and thereafter kept a tight lid on the volume control when it would have been easier for this numerous orchestra to overshadow the soloist.
The soloist again produced admirable strength through the languor of the slow movement, early on with first flutes and then clarinets. The one slight flaw I noticed was that his acceleration at the start of the central development section was a trifle abrupt. The wind section of the orchestra was a highlight all evening, whereas the brass, and especially the horns, at moments sounded uncomfortably rasping in the Rachmaninov.
In the finale, the music trends from the hectic early on to an easy waltz-time, and then the orchestra's violas were prominent as they revealed the beauties of the second subject. The orchestra having built to the grandest climax of the whole work, Ploix wrapped it up with Rachmaninov's brilliant coda. Piano playing of this confidence and quality needs to be heard beyond the boundaries of Oxford.
Holst's The Planets from 1914 to 1917 is the perfect showcase for a student orchestra, requiring in order to produce its full effect a wide range of instruments, massed forces and oodles of energy. Hannah Schneider told me at the interval that they had put in 10 rehearsals or so beforehand during the term. She is an American Rhodes Scholar, both conductor and violinist and has links with conductor Valery Gergiev and Oxford Philharmonic's own Marios Papadopoulos.
In the opening 'Mars, the Bringer of War' the conductor is required to be everywhere at once since there are repeated alarums from tubas, trumpets, trombones, bassoons and horns that combine in stamping rhythms and one climax after another. To be super-picky, one might say she rather manufactured a wall of sound rather than inducing the discrete instruments to make themselves heard with any individuality; but that's a very difficult thing to do, and in any case there was no doubting the martial menace of this music, with the percussion section especially effective at the end. In 'Venus' David Palmer's celeste provided tinkling contrast to 'Mars'' braying, and the two harps provided new interest.
The nimble 'Mercury' featured excellent flute playing, and then we reached the central 'Jupiter'. Here Schneider adopted a pleasingly brisk tempo, perhaps mindful that the 'I Vow to Thee My Country' big tune can otherwise sound plodding. She managed perfectly the timeless effect of 'Saturn', building inexorably to the crescendo where the brass pounded tellingly. At the end in 'Neptune', a little female choir was seen up in the gods singing high chords almost in the manner of electronic music. Ligeti might have approved.