The Oxford University Sinfonietta made their name performing programmes which mix music from the early classical period with more contemporary works. Last night’s programme was no different: the warm D major of Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony was followed by the harsh dissonance of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 1, with some Ligeti and Prokofiev topping off the programme. It was in the contemporary repertoire that the ensemble (conducted by Ed Whitehead) would prove to be most comfortable.
Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony opened the programme. The small size of the string section (including just 2 cellos and 1 double bass) proved a disadvantage: not only was there a lack of body at several points, but this led to an imbalance between the string and wind sections. The string playing was fairly ragged in several passages, with intonation and synchronisation slightly approximate in the scales in 3rds between first and second violins. Flautist Charles Troup’s playing in the second movement was of note, his mellifluous tone elevating the carefully shaped phrases. Although I felt that this movement lacked the larger-scale view which was required, Ed Whitehead’s interpretation was generally assured. The finale’s lightning speed captured the effervescent feel of Mozart’s writing (although this illuminated a few more technical flaws).
Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 1 was next on the programme, its unapologetic textures suiting the clarity of the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building. The opening brass dissonance was tight and confident, setting the bar high for a truly brilliant performance. Woodwind chatter was metronomic and strings gave the polyphonic writing a searing intensity. Whitehead’s precise baton set an unrelenting pace over which the counterpoint would unfold, handling the changes of time in the second movement decisively. Maintaining their ferociousness until the very end, the Sinfonietta’s account was truly gripping, and surely the highlight of the programme.
Ligeti’s Nouvelles Aventures opened the second half. Written for 3 singers and 7 instruments, the piece stretches the players to the max. The vocalists generally displayed good commitment, investing themselves in the theatrical elements. Ed Whitehead’s clarity of beat proved indispensable once again amidst the cacophony of nonsensical whoops and mutterings. The combination of performers was shuffled for Ramifications: 12 string players were divided into two groups, each tuned a quarter-tone apart. The hypnotic rhythms were gradually transfigured from the extraterrestrial muted sound of the start to a seething mass of criss-crossing lines. The effect
was immersive, and the performance captured the increasing urgency of the dense texture well.
The last piece on the programme was Prokofiev’s neo-classical Symphony No. 1. This 1917 work is an exercise in the style of Haydn, albeit one injected with cheeky asides, erratic rhythms and unexpected harmonic diversions. The Sinfonietta’s playing was incisive, bringing out Prokofiev’s playful approach to the conventions of Haydn’s style. This was the piece where Ed Whitehead seemed most at home, setting a vivacious speed which elucidated the elements of dance from the first movement. However, the tempo chosen for the fourth movement was a touch too fast and teetered on the edge of control. Luckily, the Sinfonietta clung on by their finger-tips, and the result was a visceral and exciting whirlwind of a finale.
Despite some under-rehearsed Mozart, the rest of the programme showed the Oxford University Sinfonietta to be an ensemble capable of great things. A formidable programme of contemporary music was tackled with great verve, and they rose admirably to the challenge.