St. Peter’s College Chapel is fast becoming a favourite location for orchestral concerts in Oxford. The venue for the Ripieno Players’ debut concert last term, the Holywell Music Room, is sublime for chamber music but was stretched, acoustically and spatially, by a fully-fledged chamber orchestra. The relocation to St. Peter’s for this concert worked beautifully for them, and not least because conductor Joe Davies had chosen a programme that suited the acoustic so well.
A great acoustic isn’t much without great playing, and thankfully there was a lot of the latter on show throughout the evening. They opened with J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major, featuring the leader of the Oxford University Orchestra, Elizabeth Nurse, as soloist. Nurse played with confident aplomb throughout, showing both the authority of the formidable concertmaster she is and the independent spirit of a soloist. For Baroque concerti, where the soloist would have also been the leader (in place of a conductor), this combination is of course especially important. Credit goes also, therefore, to Davies for his well-judged unobtrusiveness in his approach to conducting the work. Nurse was allowed to hold the stage and command the piece fully, and there were a number of moments where the orchestra reacted nicely to her rich tone. Occasionally the balance of the ensemble wavered, and there were passages of detail in the solo part that were lost beneath the orchestra, but more often than not Nurse’s sound rested nicely on top. George Needham also deserves mention for his sensitive and stylistic continuo-playing; ever-responsive to the subtle inflections of Nurse and Davies.
Bach always raises the question of ‘historically informed performance’, and lately Oxford has become something of a hotbed for it. Recent performances by the university’s own Bate Players have provided us with very high-quality playing on period instruments in ‘period style’, but such fully-committed ‘HIP’ approaches are hard to achieve. Mid-way performances are deeply unsatisfactory things, so the Ripieno Players were sensible in deciding to go with what they knew and doing it well, vibrato and all.
After Bach at his serene, glorious best, we were treated to Beethoven at his opaque weirdest: the ‘Serioso’ quartet in F minor, beefed-up for string orchestra by the young (and, to the Viennese, even sacrilegious) Gustav Mahler. Having heard Mahler’s searing version of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ last term with the St. Peters’ Chamber Orchestra, it was interesting to hear his related Beethoven project, a piece that provides a little more room for creative orchestration. Beethoven’s quartet lies in a strange middle-ground between his ‘heroic’ earlier compositions (the ‘Archduke’ Trio, the Fifth Symphony, and so on) and his increasingly introverted and mystifying ‘late’ quartets. As a result, it’s a piece that can be a hard nut to crack, both as performer and audience.
The brash confidence of the opening was delivered with gusto by the Ripieno Players, and the first movement as a whole had an appropriate level of terseness. The stark silences that separate the heavy-browed unison outbursts resonated nicely in the chapel, as did the more lyrical sections. The first violins played well, faced with a famously horrendous part to navigate (hard as a soloist, even harder as a section), and the seconds were led by some beautiful playing from their principal, Emma Reynolds. The lower strings in particular had a lot of fun with the romping scherzo (if that’s not too un-serioso a word for it), which made the bizarre final movement all the more striking. Some of the more impenetrable contrapuntal passages in the middle movements were not always convincingly delivered, but then one wonders whether Beethoven even meant them to be. He did, after all, supposedly disown the quartet as unsuitable for public performance. Moments like the fizzling-out fugatos in the second movement and the ‘surprise’ opera buffa ending seem more like whacky sketchbook ideas than parts of a coherent work. Even the very best performances still render this quartet a puzzle, and so due praise must go to the Ripieno Players for their confident and characterful rendition of one of Mahler’s more reckless adaptations.