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'Much needed heart and wit' - OUSE TT23 Review

The Holywell Music Room presents a challenge for any and all musicians to conquer - a tricky and often surprisingly imposing acoustic that is hard to tame. Safe to say, Oxford University String Ensemble demonstrated several moments of real control, accuracy, and agility that left the hall ringing with a particularly fiery Mendelssohnian coda.

The period-straddling programme of Biber, Bruch, and Mendelssohn was judiciously chosen, demonstrating the diverse skill set of players in string ensembles - especially those on the smaller side - calling for pin-sharp staccato, restrained flourishes and sweeping, sensitive accompaniment playing. Forgiving a few momentary lapses, the whole ensemble remained calm and collected, delivering the programme with much needed heart and wit.

Andre Chan’s confident approach to the podium set the tone for Biber’s Der Nachtwächter, a suite of seven short musical trinkets showcasing familiar dance tunes such as an allemande and a gavotte, which (notwithstanding a few slightly nervous starts), came off with an appropriate sense of refinement and skill. The centrepiece of the suite, the chaconne, features a text by Biber himself, and was sung with pathos and a welcome nonchalance by Ben Gilchrist, strolling around the oval floor of the Holywell as the titular Nachtwächter beginning his watch as the light outside the window (rather fortuitously) began to fade.

Bruch’s Romanze for viola and orchestra presented yet another challenge. Skilfully arranged for string ensemble by Yoon Jae Lee, the oblique and troubled character of Bruch’s F major was not lost, and each player demonstrated their skill in providing sensitive accompaniment. Making their debut with OUSE, Charlie Potts’ playing was assured, suitably anguished and often affecting, projecting effortlessly over the ensemble with ringing double stops and dovetailing smoothly with the violins.

Mendelssohn’s String Symphony no. 12 acted as the palate cleanser after Bruch’s pained yet luxurious strains. The infamous fugues and fugatos were mostly handled precisely, although the constant movement and interaction of parts often verged on disorienting. Still, there is no denying the technical feat tackled and mostly mastered here. The second movement’s lyricism hit like a breath of fresh air before the final movement (plagued only slightly by a page turning malfunction), accelerating to a blistering coda which brought the concert to a fittingly emphatic end.

Small but mighty, OUSE certainly put on a show, and are certainly one to watch. Who knows what the future will bring!


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