Oxford Chamber Orchestra, Sheldonian Theatre

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There was a satisfying symmetry to the OCO’s concert last Friday, in which Elgar’s poignant Cello Concerto was sandwiched in between the cheerful exuberance of Vaughan Williams’s Wasps overture and Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ symphony, both of which saw the composers drawing on national folk tunes for inspiration.

The Wasps overture, written 100 years ago as incidental music for Aristophanes’ famous satire, was a delightful opening. Under Nicholas Cleobury’s buoyant direction, the players made much of the comedy of the piece, and the ‘buzzing’ sound was so realistic you almost expected to see a cloud of wasps floating from the orchestra. This was a joyous and robust account, which gave lucid expression to the rich orchestration that owes much to the influence of Ravel.

Fleeting moments of humour were allowed to break through in the Cello Concerto, but they were brief respites from its overwhelming and complex emotions. Written during the summer of 1919, when war had claimed the lives of so many young men, and the deaths of several close friends made Elgar aware of his own immortality, the piece takes the listener through deep sorrow and quiet meditation to anger and despair. In the capable hands of Guy Johnston, the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2000, the piece had an intensity and sensitivity that was profoundly moving. Still in his twenties, Johnston plays with maturity and insight, every phrase articulated simply and expressively.

And so to Schumann’s gloriously tuneful ‘Rhenish’ symphony, in such marked contrast to Elgar’s melancholia that it was like sunshine bursting through the rain clouds. The orchestra was clearly enjoying itself as it captured both the exuberance and the lyrical qualities of this immensely satisfying symphony, from the peasant dance of the second movement to the carnival atmosphere of the finale, to bring the evening to a rousing conclusion.

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