There was all-German music programmed at the Sheldonian on Saturday, with music students from the Royal Academy of Music and Japan of the day before being replaced by the older (and possibly wiser?) players of Oxford Symphony Orchestra. The OSO is one of the city's amateur bands and perhaps its foremost, though the proof of the pudding must generally be in the eating in these cases. Its annual output is of three or four main concerts. I last heard the orchestra on this self-same date last year, when Mahler's Fifth was scheduled. This time it was the Fourth, and a violin concerto was exchanged for a cello work. I wrote 12 months ago: 'Broad St was buzzing with life on Saturday evening with the combination of the full tourist season, a warm night and Giffords Circus just down the road' and plus ça change...
Beethoven's Egmont Overture is incidental music illustrating Goethe's tragedy in which the Dutch Count Egmont opposed the Spanish repression of his country and ended by having his head separated from his shoulders. A rather shocking chord gets things underway, played from a standing start with plenty of vim by the strings. The fact that they were able to do this and also display energy throughout the evening certainly does much to cement the Orchestra's local reputation. This was followed by a sinister progression. The main point of interest in the piece is the rousing martial triumph at the end (the democratically-minded Beethoven is, I think, enjoying the Spanish getting their comeuppance) illustrated by flutes and heroic brass; surely the equal or something close to it of the famous coda that concludes the Fifth Symphony.
Indira Grier was the soloist for Schumann's Cello Concerto. She is studying for a Master's Degree at the Royal College of Music. I've seen the concerto described as rather a tame sort of reverie, as though improvised by the soloist and a few friends in some Victorian-era drawing room. On the other hand it's something of a showcase for the solo instrument, investigating its capacity for lyric tenor melody on the one hand and a refined light-heartedness on the other, and an unusual feature of the piece is that Schumann has his soloist playing for almost the whole length, with the orchestra accompanying and often playing pizzicato, rather than there being at times a tug-of-war between the two forces. Grier's cadenza, placed here near the end of the whole concerto and accompanied by sympathetically-played flutes, was a long way removed from the kind of dazzling tour de force required by the composer of the soloist in most romantic concertos of the era.
Mahler's Symphony No.4, the most intimate of his symphonies, was the real meat of the concert, and for it the Orchestra swelled in numbers to c. 70 players. The famous sleigh-bell beginning was taken smartly, and it and its accompanying circular woodwind figures comprise one of several melodies that are taken up in midstream, as though returning to thoughts too soon abandoned. When the sleigh bells and paired oboes reappear in the finale, the principal theme of Alfred Hitchcock's North by North West can be seen to have been plundered from Mahler by Bernard Herrmann. Conductor Robert Max, a beaming smile often hovering about his lips, was an inspiring figure on the podium, alternating between standing stock still with only his hands giving direction, and showing tremendous animation as he demanded cues and energy from the discrete orchestra sections.There were one or two infelicities; a slight hesitation between the sleigh bells on their second hearing and the three double basses; the two trumpets sometimes struggled to make themselves heard above the combined horns and wind section; and the 2nd violins and violas were uncertain at the start of the 'ruhevoll'. The horn section,
with instruments sometimes stopped, was very good and its principal, Graham Wright, excellent. In the 'Danse Macabre' the whole band played with great thrust and purpose, not least the funeral tattoo from the oboes, and the tolling of what I think was a tam-tam. I wonder whether another of Mahler's big beasts of symphonies will be on the programme for June 2019? One hopes so, on the evidence of what the Orchestra has achieved with the Fifth and Fourth.