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Review: OUO, Shostakovich 7 – HT19

by Katharine Voake

The Oxford University Orchestra delivered a stupendous performance of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony on the evening of the 7th of February 2019 under the direction of Peter Stark, in the magnificent setting of the Sheldonian theatre. The excited chatter and restlessness of a predominantly student-filled audience subsided as soon as the stately opening bars were played, and thus began an hour and a half of captivating music. The complete programme was dedicated to this powerful piece, the orchestra even refraining from playing encores, which seemed fitting out of respect for this momentous and historically significant work, which is still regarded as a tribute to the sacrifice of millions of Soviet citizens during the Second World War, as well as allowing a completely immersive listening experience. This is a notoriously long and demanding piece, requiring great stamina and concentration both from the musicians and the audience – to have been able to keep the audience engrossed for the entirety of the performance is a mark of great musicianship.

The orchestra’s versatility was demonstrated in the first movement, which boasts various themes (including the famous “invasion theme”), textures, and moods. Perhaps even more impressive than the magisterial, imposing sections were the more lyrical ones: the Sheldonian is a large and imposing building yet the orchestra was able to create beautiful moments of intimacy in the more reflective passages. The series of ethereal solos towards the beginning of this movement were played with remarkable sensitivity and subtlety, and even more remarkable, one felt the soloists were really listening to each other. This level of co-operation between the musicians themselves was maintained throughout the performance, and, in addition to Peter Stark’s great direction, helps to explain how they were able to consistently achieve a perfect balance of sound.

The allegretto was taken at a brisker pace than some recordings, but this suited the orchestra’s energetic dynamic. There is nothing stoic about the OUO’s playing, and it was wonderful to see the players commit even physically to the lilting rhythm of the movement. Above the playfulness of the strings, the solo oboist delivered a particularly fine and entrancing performance.

After the still opening of the third movement, originally entitled “Home Expanses”, the music became increasingly frenzied, and this was when the orchestra really shone. Strangely, an orchestra which plays with such exuberance was suited to playing the colossal and ambiguous ending of this momentous symphony. As the end of the fourth movement grew into a ferocious climax in C major, I actually heard multiple gasps around me, as the effect of the whole orchestra playing at full volume, as well as a section of brass playing in the upper stalls, was truly overwhelming. However, this is supposed to be deeply troubling music. The finale was indeed cathartic, and perhaps the tone might have been different had the audience allowed a moment of silence and reflection after the final chord instead of immediately bursting into wild applause (though I am in no way condemning this enthusiasm). The OUO’s playing was dramatic, fine, even beautiful, but it did not convey that lurking sense of evil which this piece is capable of conveying, and which indeed makes it so haunting. This all comes down to the tricky question of interpretation, yet that element of unpleasantness which I felt was slightly lacking is essential to this piece’s “message”, if it is to have a message at all.

The lasting impression I had of this performance was one of triumph, not fear or pain. In the wider context of the world’s present bleak political situation, this triumphant interpretation was admirable and much appreciated, as was evident from the audience’s enthusiastic clapping, almost cheering, at the end of the piece (and indeed, between the movements themselves, which Peter Stark graciously accepted). It is also incredibly refreshing, and surprisingly rare, to witness an ensemble’s pure enjoyment of sound, enjoying music for music’s sake. I, like so many others, exited the grandeur of the Sheldonian into the February night air thrilled.

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