St Barnabas was the setting (opulent for a city parish church) for the OUP Orchestra's autumn concert. Smetana's Vlatava from 1874 got us going, the best-known of the six little works that make up Smetana's composition for a
Somehow I'd always thought Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) must have been composed for one or other of George II's birthdays. In fact, it first saw light of day in
The piece was offered here in its brass band incarnation (the King having vetoed Handel's strings version) and I thought it rather too brief to make a great impact. I can't say either that the tempo was really appropriate for its original festive fireworks setting; indeed to my ear sounding more akin to funeral music. We received, however, a fine, pneumatic tuba blast from Rosie Glenn as the opening note, and in the 3rd section four trumpets suddenly rang out from behind us at the west end of the nave, so we were caught in a pincer movement of sound – a delightful effect.
The work offers charming opportunities for trombones, so often the poor relations of an orchestra with little to do, and they grabbed their chance eagerly. The piece concluded the first half. I must confess to having thought that the addition of a third work before the interval would have been welcome.
So onto Sibelius' Symphony No.1 (1899), the pièce de résistance of the programme. Still under the Russian musical influence (there are hints of Tchaikovsky in places, notably in the glorious 'big tune' at the end) that he would cast off before No. 2, and in part firmly in the late 19th century romantic tradition. But this is Sibelius, and it soon becomes clear there aren’t many overt melodies but instead short motifs that seem about to become a melody but not quite. Instead, they drive the symphony onwards, one instrument or section taking turns from each other, churning and answering, and suddenly, lines of thought conjoin and flow into melody. It's always fascinating for a devoted Sibelian like myself to try to mark out in this symphony the early steps of Sibelius’ symphonic principles.
We opened with a forlorn clarinet solo from Ashleigh Alderslade backed by sotto voce timpani. This is a bit of a trial of nerve and particularly breathing control for the amateur clarinettist, and it was here really well done – tone and lower register notes. Then I thought the tempo sagged somewhat in the development, though shimmering violins twice created excellent tension before, on the second occasion, being interrupted by a blast from the trombones that stormed the orchestra.
In the andante, the horns got us off to an uncertain start before we passed on to a pastoral episode with birdsong oboes (they and the flutes were a highlight of the playing of this work; the latter especially good at the opening of the scherzo). Joseph Beesley was giving out plenty of energy to his players, wary I guess of falling into the trap of the too slow pace about which Sibelius used to complain when attending performances of his symphonies in
The mysterious opening clarinet melody returned with the finale, first on strings then on woodwinds, then relieved by the impassioned C major theme, as the whole orchestra really excelled itself in the thrilling drive towards the finish, ending on two bleak pizzicato chords.