Review: Oxford University Orchestra play Mendelssohn and Berlioz

Oxford University Orchestra‘s Christmas concert was one of the most anticipated that Oxford University had seen in years, featuring two much-loved works (Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto), with two illustrious guests. One was conductor Daniel Harding, Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, who has conducted both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, among notable others. The other was the award-winning violinist Carolin Widmann, who has previously performed as a soloist alongside conductors including Simon Rattle and Sir Roger Norrington. Sitting waiting for the (somewhat late) start, it was hard not to wonder whether the concert could possibly live up to expectations.

The main focus of Widmann’s career has been contemporary avant-garde music, so Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, a seminal Romantic work, is a far cry from her usual fare. On the one hand, her technical abilities shone as she deftly handled the virtuosic cadenzas, demonstrating the level of technical skill which allows her to play extraordinarily demanding contemporary music. Her tone, however, was rather stark. While this may be ideal in abstract modern compositions it wasn’t well suited to the richly emotive Mendelssohn, although in places it did allow a beautifully reflective quality to come through. It also meant that at times the solo violin sound was drowned too easily by dramatic orchestral crescendos, rather than growing to the climax with them.

The orchestra brought great vigour to their interjections and accompanied Widmann with impressive control, not drifting out of time even in the busiest passages of the final movement. The strings made a full sound, and the woodwind solos were expressively rendered. This work is all about the violin though; neither the orchestra nor the conductor makes or breaks it. Their performance here was perhaps best described as “solid” — a word which also aptly describes Widmann’s performance. It was nicely phrased and perfectly in tune throughout, without a note out of place, but it somehow felt “well rehearsed” rather than “fantastic”, lacking in the tiny expressive details which take the ear by surprise, and a performance to the next level. The second movement was attractive, but lacked the heart-rending beauty lent to it by David Oistrakh’s sonorous tone in his recordings, while the witty and fun nature of the third movement could have come across much more strongly, as it does in Maxim Vengerov’s performances of the work. Widmann took the same unsentimental approach one would take to Boulez which, for me at least, wasn’t a good fit with such an expressive work.

If the first half of the concert could have benefitted from more character, this was certainly not the case in the second half. From the opening moments of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique Daniel Harding’s ability to bring a piece to life shone through. Not only did he demonstrate superb control of tempi, rubato, and balance, he also gave the orchestra constant signals about the music’s mood. Assistant conductor David O’Neill, who took most of the rehearsals, had clearly rehearsed the orchestra thoroughly, no doubt deserving credit for much of the good phrasing, attention to dynamics, and outstanding level of ensemble, but Harding’s distinctive conducting visibly galvanized the orchestra into playing with real energy on the night.

The orchestra must be given considerable praise for the way they were able to respond to Harding’s every whim. The strings shone particularly in the first two movements (‘Reveries’ and ‘Un bal’), achieving a standard of ensemble, dynamic range, and flexibility not often found in student orchestras, particularly those of this large size. The third movement featured a notable performance from cor anglais player Chloe Barnes, whose playing oozed confidence and class during the opening duet with the offstage oboe (which signifies two shepherds playing to each other across a valley). The brass had (and clearly enjoyed) their moment of glory in ‘March to the Scaffold’, a tune it is impossible not to raise a smile for. As the Symphony reached its morbid conclusion in the Dance of the Sabbath’s ‘diabolical orgy’ (as Berlioz described it), there was some fantastically garish E-flat clarinet playing from Dan Mort, before an ending so loud that it raised concerns for the wellbeing of the Sheldonian roof.

What came across most strongly at the end of the concert was that the orchestra had, both literally and figuratively, had a blast. After a first half in which personality seemed to have been sacrificed for technical achievements, the second half was full of vitality and, frankly, more enjoyable than many professional performances. At a time when classical music is increasingly hostile to anything other than technical perfection, it demonstrated the great (and often forgotten) importance of just having fun.

Emma Brown

For information about OUO’s forthcoming concerts, please visit their website.

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