The concert saw Oxford University Orchestra out in force, with a huge orchestra that raised the roof with the epic Mahler’s 5th, and the curious appendage of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.
With the opportunity to conduct Mahler’s 5th symphony, it was up to Geoffrey Paterson to wring every ounce of emotion from this beautiful and substantial work, a task in which he no doubt succeeded. For me however, there were times when it felt as though too much was being forced from every nuance in the music, which became emotionally exhausting and removed some of the effect of those ‘big moments’ that the composer had designated. By the same token, though, conducting Mahler, like singing Wagner, is a chance to indulge in some of the most expansive and emotionally rich music in the repertoire and if there is ever a time to over-indulge, then Mahler is a more forgiving composer than most. Personally, though, there was no doubt that the highlight of the concert was the Adagietto, which, despite some tuning issues, featured a higher level of subtlety and really allowed the orchestra to engage more naturally with the music.
The sheer volume of the symphony was impressive in itself, with seemingly every inch of floorspace being occupied by a performer. This translated to some brilliant, thrilling explosions, particularly after the introductory fanfare and, of course, in the finale. However, given the high level of proficiency that we have come to expect from OUO in the past, there were one or two unfortunate slip-ups from soloists, particularly from the brass, that detracted from the overall effect. By contrast, the woodwind section were consistently outstanding, with gorgeous solos from Julian Scott and Claire Wickes who put just the right amount of zest into some of the symphony’s more intimate moments.
Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments was, in my opinion, an unconventional choice to accompany Mahler’s 5th in the programme, although I suspect that time constraints were the primary reason for the inclusion of this heavily contrasting work. Here, Paterson’s highly expressive approach was less appropriate. The metric regularity that can make this piece of ‘cubist’ music so exciting and unusual was subject to lagging from a slow starting tempo, and the ensemble really did not feel together at times. That said, the sheer audacity of performing the work – and with it, the chance to hear the interlocking textures and shifting strata of twentieth-century harmony – warranted its place in the programme. Unfortunately, it felt both dwarfed and under-prepared in comparison with the Mahler symphony and didn’t offer a podium for the excellent woodwind section as it might have done.
Despite counterintuitive programming, the concert proved to be both thrilling and sensuous, though not without its flaws. To even attempt the virtuosic Mahler symphony and the Stravinsky demonstrates the excellent standard that OUO is operating at and to hear them both was a genuine pleasure, regardless of some decisions made by the conductor and concert programmer that, ultimately, come down to personal taste.