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Review: OUO TT2021 – Wagner and Sibelius

Checkie Hamilton celebrates the return of live orchestral music to Oxford with a review of the OUO’s recent performance of Wagner’s Parsifal and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.

Last Friday, despite competing with the highly anticipated England Vs. Scotland Euro 2020 match for an audience, the Oxford University Orchestra concert was suitably packed out – albeit in a socially distanced fashion. The programme’s unusual pairing of the Prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2– combined with the covid-compliant reduced forces of the orchestra– made for an atmosphere of anticipation.

The delight at the glimpse of normality provided by the concert was evident in the keen applause as the orchestra took their seats. The programme got off on a slightly unsteady footing, with the lack of synchronisation of the upper strings at the start of the Parsifal prelude drew attention to the social distancing and the challenges it entails. However, this was quickly overcome, producing a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece.

The work recalled OUO’s Michaelmas 2019 Concert with a programme jam-packed with preludes from Wagner’s operas, creating a poignant and nostalgic contrast between this pre-covid concert and the drastically different circumstances we find ourselves in today, hearing this prelude to Wagner’s final opera. The so-called “Dresden Amen” was suitably reverential, however some of the drama of the proceeding brass phrases was lost due to the reduced forces of one-to-a-part. Nevertheless, this prelude was well-performed and provided an exciting start to the concert.

The pastoral opening motif of Sibelius’ second symphony transported us to a stunning Scandinavian landscape. Following a pulsing string theme, a lively woodwind motif evoked birdsong, alternating with a more majestic brass motif above an elegant string accompaniment. The pizzicato opening of the second movement was well executed with the lower strings operating as if they were one instrument, a particularly impressive feat given the distance between them. The third movement saw solos passed around the woodwind section. A lyrical and expansive oboe solo provided respite from the incessant string drive towards the final movement.

Much of the motivic material employed by Sibelius earlier in the symphony comes to full fruition in the finale and this was certainly reflected in the performance. The strings revelled in the rich earworm of a main theme with its dance-like dotted rhythm. The rumbling timpani and triumphant brass drove the piece towards its victorious end.

The Finnish conductor and notable Sibelius interpreter, Robert Kajanus wrote that this conclusion was “intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.” This was certainly true of OUO’s performance of the movement, which left the audience hopeful and excited for a future no longer deprived of live music.

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