Review: Oxford University Philharmonia

2015 has seen the Nordic composers Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen dominate concert programmes across the UK. They both celebrated their 150th birthdays this year, along with the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (who seems to have been largely forgotten). The sounds of their music opened the Proms, whilst the Royal Festival Hall hosted a Sibelius symphony cycle conducted by Simon Rattle, and the Barbican did the same with Nielsen under the baton of Sakari Oramo. Oxford University Philharmonia’s latest concert at the Sheldonian contributed to these anniversary celebrations, offering an ambitious programme of Sibelius’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies, alongside Nielsen’s Saga-drøm and Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. This was a somewhat predictable combination (where are the more unusual scores like Sibelius’s Scaramouche in the anniversary celebrations?), but the material was for the most part handled admirably by the orchestra and conductor John Warner.

The concert opened with Nielsen’s Saga-Drøm (‘Saga-Dream’), a tone poem based on the thirteenth century Icelandic epic Njál’s Saga. The text originally depicts a dream sequence, in which the protagonist and his companions are attacked by wolves, and one of their party is killed. However Nielsen eschews any notion of traditional narrative, instead seeming to present the sensation of dreaming itself. He juxtaposes blocks of musical material that are connected by interweaving woodwind parts, like fragmentary thoughts that provide some kind of coherence to the unpredictable landscape of a dream. The highly unorthodox construction of the piece is undeniably dramatic; unsurprising given that it was conceived whilst he was composing music for the symbolist drama Tove. However this dramatic connection was given little acknowledgement by the orchestra, with their execution lacking the sense of a vitalising “life force” that is so integral to Nielsen’s musical outlook. The highly sectionalised form of Saga-Drøm did not play to the orchestra’s strengths, as they are at their strongest in lush Romantic soundscapes with continuous sweeping melodies. Each section took a little while to gather momentum, and would have benefitted from greater attention to cleaner entries as these sounded consistently tentative, dampening the disorienting effect of the contrasting sections.

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A similar problem hampered Sibelius’s Fifth symphony, which followed Saga-Drøm. The sparse scoring of the first movement leaves the string section and woodwind entries extremely exposed, which sometimes proved problematic with tuning issues and uneven balance between the sections. However the performance improved significantly from the second movement onwards, with Joseph Evans (trumpet) and Cameron Alsop (timpani) deserving of particular mention. Warner’s interpretation of the third movement showed an extraordinary intuition for pacing, letting the silences between the final chords linger for longer than expected. There is something that can ring hollow about the “triumphant” close to the Fifth, and the extended silences seemed to question the idea of an elated or conclusive ending. The musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg has called Sibelius one of the ‘great composers of silence’, and never is this more apparent than in the bell tolls of this symphony, unsettling the tonal closure of the piece.

Whether it was because the orchestra had warmed up properly, they empathised with the music more, or greater time had been spent on it in rehearsal, the second half of the concert was in an altogether different league from the first. The Arvo Pärt was sensitive and poignant, with the sound balance remaining consistent throughout the slow crescendo. The insistent funeral bell seemed to hark back to the final chords of Sibelius’s Fifth whilst nodding to the enigmatic bleakness of the Seventh, creating a pleasing continuity across the programme. The performance of the Seventh was the clear highlight of the concert: the woodwind and brass sections excelled, and the majority of tuning issues in the strings were eliminated. This extraordinary symphony was originally premiered as a “symphonic fantasy”, the Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, marking a new moment in Sibelius’s symphonic conception. Warner and the orchestra beautifully captured the enigmatic dualism that characterises the work, leading to it being described as both ‘the most depressed C major in all of musical literature’ by conductor Simon Rattle, and ‘the grandest celebration of C major there ever was’ by musicologist Peter Franklin. Some of the energy that drives the one-movement form inexorably onward was lost in the scalic repetitions, sometimes leaving the structure sagging a little, but the majority of the symphony was thoughtfully interpreted and executed.

All orchestras face a careful balancing act between expanding repertoire and ensuring ticket sales. That said, Oxford student orchestras are in the enviable position of having extremely talented players at their disposal, and an audience base that is genuinely enthusiastic about classical music. They can afford to programme innovatively and still have an audience — and anniversaries such as these offer the opportunity to air more unusual works by established composers. Some of Sibelius’s lesser played orchestral pieces might have suited the orchestra slightly better on this occasion, and provided a more eye-catching programme. Nonetheless, the works presented were enjoyable and captivatingly performed, closing on a high with the formidable rendition of the Seventh.

Leah Broad

For more information about Oxford University Philharmonia, please visit their website.

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