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Review: Oxford University Sinfonietta – HT19

by Maria Kostylew

The rapturous applause at the end of Oxford University Sinfonietta’s Hilary Term performance was a very deserved finish to an evening of exquisite music, featuring pieces by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Metcalf. Set in the impressive venue of University Church of Mary, and conducted by Tom Fetherstonhaugh, the performance effectively combined both the well-known and the very new; the programme was performed with both technical flare and profound emotion.

The evening began with a world premier of ‘Brilliance and Fire’ by Thomas Metcalf- the winner of OUMS Composition Competition 2019. According to the programme, the inspiration for the piece was the journey of light through a diamond: “As the light enters the diamond, it is vigorously refracted into its constituent colours before leaving as a more mesmerising version of its former self.” There was something of Prokofiev in the piece in its progressions from dissonance and abrupt passages to piercing long notes and moments of lyricism; the diamond analogy is certainly very appropriate- the strength of the piece was conveying a sense of journey, both unpredictable and full of musical echoes.

‘Brilliance and Fire’ was followed by Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto 1. The tremolos in the violas perfectly set the scene for the ‘dreamy’ opening melody of the solo violin, performed with a heart-felt lyricism by the soloist Charlie Lovell-Jones. The following ‘narrante’ section was played with superb virtuosity that was maintained throughout the whole piece; the soloist’s confidence and brio really stood out. David Oistrakh recalled that Prokofiev had said to “play it as though you’re trying to convince someone of something” – Lovell-Jones’ performance of that passage was most certainly convincing.

One of the strongest points of the performance were the moments of tension, noticeable especially in the Scherzo movement with relentless rhythmic ostinatos serving as a powerful display of virtuosity. The clarity of pizzicato was particularly impressive as was the energy maintained throughout the virtuoso sections with satisfying moments of unity where the rhythmically disparate strands came together at the end of the second movement with the soloist and the orchestra finishing the movement in unison at the top of an abrupt crescendo. The brass could be slightly heavy in the Scherzo movement, but instead of being off-putting, it mostly had the effect of enriching the texture and emphasising the contrast within the passage.

The technical difficulties of the piece, harmonics, chromaticisms, double and triple stops were mastered with seeming ease; indeed, there were moments when the technique seemed to overshadow expressivity, with some passages becoming almost mechanical, although this in no way destroyed the aura of the performance as a whole, especially since Prokofiev identified ‘motoric rhythms’ as one of the four distinct stylistic strands within his violin concerto. For a piece that is full of contrasts and different thematic strands, the orchestra proved their versatility in capturing the nuances of the piece, although I would have personally liked for them to linger a bit more on the more tranquil passages to emphasise the contrasts even further. Following the chaotic, ‘sarcastic’ Scherzo movement, the piece returned to the opening melody with the former lyricism restored. The last moments of the concerto could be prolonged to savour the fading away that ends the intense interplay of contrasting sounds.

After the interlude, those infamous four-notes resounded, marking the beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony 5. For a piece so well-known, it would seem difficult to meet the audience’s expectations and yet the symphony was performed with exhilarating intensity and flair. One could not help but wish for a bigger venue for that particular piece to let the sound expand even more, particularly in the triumphant passages.

The orchestra seemed to grow in confidence as the piece progressed. The contrasts and ambiguities were fleshed out with a very rich texture achieved, especially by strings. The control on the part of both strings and woodwind was excellent, particularly prominent in the passages of dialogue between them in the development section of the first movement.

The variations of the second movement were played leisurely, but with assurance that was maintained throughout. The orchestra demonstrated once again their ability to convey both the sense of triumph through the booming passages of unified playing and the lyrical sensitivity of the woodwind variations. One could not help but wish that there were more instances where the orchestra employed a softer touch and a slower pace such as the opening of the third movement that would have benefited from a more ‘mysterious’ tone. When such contrasts were achieved, however, the sound was exquisite.

Also noteworthy was the fugato section which the basses handled with superb confidence and clarity. The horns could be a little bit clearer in their solo entries and there were a few instances where the precision of the rhythm was slightly disrupted, but overall there could be hardly any substantive criticism to be made about OUSinf’s performance of the piece. Once again, we were put on a journey, this time from the darkness of initial C minor to the triumph of C major.

A blazing coda with a long C major cadence, played fortissimo ended this immense piece. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Beethoven’s 5th seemed to be the audience’s favourite; the appraisals I’ve heard around me following the performance were numerous, a testimony to the professionalism of Oxford University Sinfonnietta- most certainly a prominent presence on the Oxford music scene.

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