This term’s OUPhil concert is dedicated to modern music, with two pieces from giants Bartók and Mahler being performed in a very full Sheldonian. Starting with Bartók’s Viola Concerto with the talented Rachel Maxey playing the solo part, the programme requires that the audience be entirely open to the Hungarian composer’s intriguing mix of voiced sensitivity and lack of spontaneity due to a complex score.

The concerto challenges our expectations by articulating melodic themes which are then more or less successfully superimposed on a fragmented, yet expansive orchestral accompaniment. The tense atmosphere is very clearly set as soon as the first notes are echoed by the violins, creating a sense of anguish. Rachel Maxey goes along confi dently with the ambitiously “notey” viola part, in turns fading in with the orchestra and suddenly springing back to the musical forefront with focused ease. However, there seems to be no straightforward aspect to this piece, since even the tempo is as elusive and changing as the alternation between the mostly aggressive beginnings of phrases and the underlying introspection.

Contrast is key from the opening of the evening onwards. Silences are filled with expectation, enabling the musicians to trace the outline of the current theme more precisely and mark it without losing too much coherence. Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, dubbed the “Resurrection”, proposes a more accessible take on similar sonorities. The repetitive motif played by the strings at the beginning of the first movement, an “allegro maestoso”, evolves through a series of variations during which the entire orchestra progressively gains amplitude until the booming last minutes of grand but confused unison with the choir and two female soloists.

The sheer volume of sound reflects the large numbers of musicians on stage, with a rare duo of harps, five percussionists and an impressive total of eleven French horns, although this appears to fluctuate throughout the performance. Groups of three or four leave the room only to return to their seats at the centre of the Sheldonian moments after, inevitably distracting the audience on their way. The reason for this traffic becomes clearer when distant horns are heard calling triumphantly from the corridors, an interesting device which is not entirely justified, especially considering the existence of mutes.

At times solemn and rarely light, the OUPhil’s programme is carefully interpreted and juggles with the composers’ attraction for opposites. The orchestra’s rounded, full sound responds to the successive soloists in sometimes brutal, but mostly adequately phrased echoes ranging from a sharp pizzicato to disconcerting legatos.