Review: Finale of the Oxford May Music Festival

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The Hollywell Music Room hosts the finale of the Oxford May Music Festival


The Goldner String Quartet are joined Jack Liebeck, Victoria Sayles, Philip Dukes, Guy Johnston and Daniel Grimwood to close this year’s Oxford May Music

The organisers of Oxford May Music could not have hoped for a better day for the finale of their festival. The Hollywell Music Room is itself already something of an exceptional venue that suited the evening’s programme of chamber music perfectly, but the sunny, lazy bank holiday Monday evening made it into something almost heavenly.

All this pleasantness meant that the challenges of the repertoire were largely unanticipated on my part. Vivaldi’s four concerti that form “Il Quattro Stagione” (more famously known as The Four Season) may easily be dismissed as a simple crowd-pleasers, but the fact that it is possibly the most famous piece of classical music means that it offers one of the biggest challenges to a performer: turning a piece everyone has heard an infinite number of times into something new and exciting. The work’s status as ‘lift music’ meant that I certainly would not have gone out of my way to see a performance of it, being under the misconception of believing that it could only really serve as background music. But hearing the Four Seasons being played by an ensemble that takes the work completely seriously and performs it as a concert work that requires attention definitely changed my mind.

An enlightened decision was to give the solo part in each of the four concerti to a different one of the four violinists in the ensemble, allowing them to inflect their own personality onto each season. Clever interaction between the players meant that particularly in the first concerto, “La primavera” (Spring), the pictorial references to birdsong or murmuring streams were unmistakable. In the second concerto “L’estate” (Summer) the tutti forte sections were played with all the drama and power that could be mustered, leaving it impossible to casually listen to it in the background.

The music in the second half of the concert offered a contrast. Vivaldi requires the enthusiasm of its players to bring it to life, whereas it would be difficult not to be enthused by Mendelssohn’s Octet. The ensemble does well in revealing the mastery in Mendelssohn’s scoring, particularly in the second movement. Richness is contrasted with the ethereal at its beginning where the lower half of the ensemble forms a quartet which is contrasted beautifully by the entrance of the four violins in a quartet of their own. The lower half become something special in this movement, a movement mainly dominated by their violins, so that the cellos and violas do enter it is a significant event. The rarity of having two violas in an ensemble is put to its full advantage: duets between them are brought out with scintillating pleasure.

The final two movements are simply joyful to listen to. The Scherzo spills over into the Finale, as the cellos eagerly begin the Fugue that it opens with before there is a chance to take a breath. Here the ensemble succeeds in ingeniously balancing the delightfully humorous final two movements against the ravishing opening two.

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