Oxford University Orchestra’s Trinity term concert featured two momentous early twentieth century symphonic works – Debussy’s La Mer and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2. It was a lovely pairing of two iconic works which the orchestra evidently enjoyed performing. From the introductory motif of La Mer to the final triplet of the Rachmaninov symphony, there was a real sense that the orchestra was alive, swelling, and moving with the music. Such a display of passion and genuine love for the music being performed made such a difference to the audience’s satisfaction.Watching such an orchestra made the concert a wholly immersive experience.
The orchestra’s performance of Debussy’s La Mer showcased Debussy’s compositional style, and the orchestra did an excellent job in its rendition of each movement’s idiosyncrasies. The mysterious quality of the first movement started off finely, with the cor anglais and muted trumpet creating a unique timbre. Intonation, especially in difficult string passages, was consistent throughout the first movement. In the second movement, the interplay between the cor anglais, flute, and oboe was playful and exciting, and embellishments by the percussion and harp were crisp. The third movement displayed the serene as well as more forceful moods, with graceful and soaring wind solos suddenly being undercut by precisely articulated brass fanfares. The trumpet solo (performed by Guy Barwell) in the third movement was fantastic. What made OUO’s rendition of La Mer especially stylish was the fact that not once was sound forced, helping immerse us in Debussy’s unique sound world. Instead, sound seamlessly emanated from every section, allowing for woodwind solos to subtly creep in, and more generally small details and intricacies to be heard, even during fortissimo sections.
The first movement of the Rachmaninov symphony was played phenomenally. The dark and brooding theme in the lower strings culminated in luscious textures in which no section came across as too imposing. A particular highlight was the haunting cor solo (performed by Evie Brenkley) that restates a theme first heard in the lower strings. As the texture thickened once more, sections of the brass added to the rich sonority and chose their moments well to rise above the rest of the orchestra; not once did this feel overly imposing or unbalanced. Transitions between the more nostalgic and the lighter moods within the movement were executed finely. The whole viola section was truly a force to be reckoned with throughout, with their fanatical semi-quavers cutting through the rest of the orchestra during the tensest moments. Jonathon Hampshire’s thrilling hit of the bass drum succinctly ended the movement with drama and tension.
The second movement sustained the tense atmosphere, albeit at an accelerated pace. I was particularly struck by the ambitious tempo choice that Joe Davies set, but it was generally pulled off well and allowed for greater contrast between the different sections of this scherzo. The only exception to this was during the beginning of the Meno Mosso C section. After the orchestra dies down and ends with a fermata, the Meno Mosso launches us into a restless fugue. I felt that tidiness and precision was slightly lacking as the fugue began. Perhaps this only stuck out because of the rigidity of the playing that had come before, and indeed, after it. More generally, the stylistic change from the articulated driving sections to the more nostalgic and reflective were achieved exceptionally well, and the original tempo was not lost after the transitional sections. The arpeggiated patterns played by various winds in the transitional sections throughout the movement all used the perfect amount of rubato; attentive watching from all sections of the orchestra enabled Joe Davies to return to the original tempo once again.
The performance of the third movement was especially moving. It provided a relief from what came before it, and the orchestra was able to adjust effortlessly to the style of playing required. The beautiful clarinet solo (performed by Alex Buckley) was supported well by the bassoons and horns, enhancing the lavish texture. The dynamic control of the orchestra was showcased during this movement as the music swelled and died down at what felt like exactly the right moments. Crucially, not once was the sound forced, and as the movement drew to a close, the audience witnessed an incredibly controlled diminuendo.
The adagio that came before the fourth movement clearly did not lull the orchestra as the fourth movement erupted with a burst of energy that was maintained to the very end. During the first transitional section, there was a degree of hesitancy between the timpani, horns, and lower strings, and it came across that there was a lack of synchronicity in parts. The return of the material from the first movement was spun in a new light by the orchestra, who did not simply repeat it, but shaped and phrased it in line with the character of the fourth movement.
It was fantastic to see the Sheldonian near maximum capacity for this concert. Such a superb performance of iconic symphonic repertoire deserved to be heard by as many people as possible.