The Michaelmas concert from Oxford University Orchestra betokened a heartening snapshot of the state of student music in
The programme featured two works composed within seven years of each other. One of the two remarkable features of Strauss' Thus Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem from 1896, is that it was composed just four years after Friedrich Nietzsche's eponymous work, a sort of rhapsody on the mysteries of life. Quotes from Nietzsche adorn the first page of the score, suggesting a programmatic intention for the beginning and last pages at least. Zarathustra, ie Zoroaster, the prophet of Persian myth, weary of his wisdom, chooses to return to dwell with mankind and by inference to lead it forward. The second remarkable feature is that the opening fanfare was used by Elvis Presley as the music to which he took the stage for his gigs in the last half dozen years of his life, and it was played at his memorial service.
The work commences with growling double-bass before Sonnenaufgang [sunrise] is conjured up from the celebrated trumpet call, here a suitably big sound from our four players, to the galactic climax, of course familiar to all sci-fi and Kubrick fans as the call to arms in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There followed an ecstatic passage for strings and organ, although the former showed faltering frailty here. The various sub-sections of the orchestra were served first by an episode for flutes and trilling clarinets representing a dance of Cupid, then by a wild plunge of trumpets portraying the descent to Earth of Zarathustra.
Strauss' aural imagination is astonishing, though the mood musics in the second half are perhaps overlong – heroism, waltzing and impishness hurry past, for instance. There was an extended passage for glockenspiel which Max Rodney, clearly a talented percussionist, took at speed and very accurately – I was sitting just above his position - and then came the harmony cadences from the upper strings, their tone rather shrill at the end.
Percussionist Oliver Nelson's programme notes – the most informative of any I've seen for a student concert - talked of the fragmentary nature of Sibelius' 2nd Symphony material and the composer's skill in piecing the fragments together into an organic whole. How right he is, and he's captured the essence of the hesitations and pauses and sudden thrusts en route to the completion of the structure that devoted Sibelians like me cherish in each of the seven symphonic masterpieces.
Conductor Natalia Luis-Basso took the repeated-note pulsations at the start at a decent tempo – she brought the symphony in at the 43 minutes mark; about standard time – and then a dance from the woodwinds announced their capabilities. The trumpets and trombones, often all together, produced a noble sound in the fanfares. I was especially taken by the oboes of Emily Crichton (excellent solo from her in the third movement) and Tetsu Isaji, and also the bassoons of Ho Ting Chan and Bruce Parris, both prominent in conjunction with the cellos and basses in the remarkable pizzicato passage at the start of the Andante. The horns, on the other hand, I thought a little erratic; muffled in their opening contribution and then over-emphatic at the end of the Allegretto. Luis-Basso used many sinuous, almost feline gestures, avoiding any suggestion of flamboyance. The violins kept a sharp eye on her, and I thought their sound grew in confidence all evening long.
It's significant that although by the late 1930s Sibelius had ceased to compose, he continued to follow the progress of Shostakovich. The latter must have been influenced in the passages of driving rhythms that propel his 15 symphonies. And where would Shostakovich have sought for his inspiration but in the processional music that concludes this symphony, basically a five-finger exercise that repeats for almost 80 bars, a great engine that propelled the final tune inexorably on its way. The timpani crashed out, the pressure increased, the effect was overwhelming.