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'Both great beauty and forewarning' - OUO MT23 Review

It was a biting November evening. As crowds of concertgoers piled into the Sheldonian Theatre, the scene was set for Oxford University Orchestra’s Michaelmas Term concert, an evening in which the macabre lingered immanently beneath the surface. The programme spoke to the relentless barbarism of war, from the dark undertones of Grant Still’s ostensibly naïve Festive Overture (1944) to the wartime dystopia of Ravel’s La Valse (1920). The centrepiece was Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11 (1957) – an emotionally charged and uncompromising work which stands as one of the most haunting expressions of human suffering within the symphonic canon.

The first half featured a crisp and exuberant account of the Grant Still. Whilst a slight outlier in the programme, the juxtaposition of idyllic flute soli against the fantastically mechanical and precise percussion performance marred the sense of utopia sufficiently. Expanding upon this theme, the orchestra articulated a kaleidoscopic interpretation of La Valse, driven by the luxuriously dark tones of the bass clarinet and bassoons, whilst the strings’ Hollywood-levels of shimmer evoked the music’s old-world, cinematic elegance. The interpretation also demonstrated a keen awareness of the wartime implications of Ravel’s tumultuous and frenetic ‘choreographic poem’ — the brass section punctuating the performance with unabashed moments of intense dissonance. Despite the potential for some greater rhythmic precision in the Sheldonian's acoustic, Purser led the orchestra in a nuanced and authoritative account of the work.

During the interval, as the impending winter chill began to settle around the theatre and winds outside picked up, the strings ventured a passionless, unflinchingly grim introduction to the Shostakovich, setting the tone for his portrayal of the 1905 Russian Revolution. The hushed atmosphere was punctuated by incisive and unerring calls from Tommaso Rusconi (principal horn) and Guy Barwell (principal trumpet), before the eruption into the inexorable potency of the second movement. In the ‘Bloody Sunday’ Fugue the fiery articulation of the violas and cellos was palpably intense.

The emotional apex of the performance unfolded in the third movement — ‘In Memoriam.’ Purser expertly navigated the emotional trajectory of the music, guiding the orchestra from meditative viola melody to profoundly moving crescendo led by brooding horns and swelling strings. Answered by gentle mourning figures in the bassoon (Conrad Spencer), the despair of the movement was painfully sincere. The final movement — marked by unyielding horn punctuations and a poignant cor anglais solo (Lucy Keeley) — saw the orchestra maintain the same level of rhythmic precision exhibited in the second. Purser’s assertive direction emphasised both angularity of melody and rhythmic drive.

Perhaps most moving was the reflection the concert invited on the dangers of unchecked power, resonating with the current geopolitical climate: unjust war ensnaring innocent civilians, and hegemonic political forces curtailing the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens. Suffused with both great beauty and forewarning, the evening served as a sobering reminder of the brutality of our own age.


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