Vernon Handley & The Oxford Philomusica

Violin Concerto in B minor
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Thomas Bowes (violin)

The Oxford Philomusica
Vernon Handley

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 29 October, 2005
Venue: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

A diminutive concert in terms of length, maybe, but it was one of stature. A little over an hour’s music, and one of the most musically satisfying that I have been to in a long while. Among the orchestra members it was good to see some familiar faces – Colin Callow, past member of the Medici String Quartet, who led the second violins, and there was also the unstoppable Tristan Fry, timpanist from the Academy of St Martin’s, and one-time drummer in Sky.

The evening was introduced by Humphrey Burton; having someone well-known introduce concerts is something that the Oxford Philomusica has retained since its early days and which adds something for those to whom the music may be unfamiliar.

The Sheldonian Theatre, despite its name, is not for theatrical productions. It was built in the mid-seventeenth-century to a design by Sir Christopher Wren to provide a secular venue for the principal meetings and public ceremonies of the University – a purpose that remains to the present day. Aside from its lack of comfort – the seats have no backs – there is also a lack of changing facilities: just one large room beneath the auditorium. The hall’s acoustic lends no support to the performers. This can lead to some unexpected results as musical lines leap out where normally they are obscured. It also shows-up any blemish in the technique of even the most experienced musician.

Vernon Handley was in a motor accident in Munich a while ago, and he has spent time in hospital and currently walks with the aid of sticks, although he hopes to be rid of them soon.

And so a hall more than three-quarters full welcomed soloist Thomas Bowes and, at a marginally slower gait, Vernon Handley for Walton’s Violin Concerto (composed and revised between 1936-1943 for Jascha Heifetz), and written when the composer was very much in love with Baroness Alice Wimborne, 22 years his senior. Handley’s interpretation was masterful. The various changes of tempo and style in the first movement make it difficult to hold together. Handley, together with the Oxford Philomusica, turned every corner with a deft swipe of the baton. The following scherzo set off at an incredible pace; perhaps emulating to the Heifetz recordings that Thomas Bowes listened to as a teenager. There were some slips, but this was live music-making at its very best. For an instant orchestra and soloist parted company, possibly because Bowes had a different idea of tempo, only to be brought back quickly into line by Handley. The syncopated passages in the finale were well placed, the hall helping to reveal every note of Walton’s counterpoint.

By contrast, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, dedicated to “my friends pictured within”, showed a decided lack of the substance that had made the Walton such a success. The orchestra was slow to respond to Handley’s faster-than-usual tempo, though it was in fact taken at the marked ‘crotchet = 63’, and it wasn’t until the fourth Variation (WMB) that the musicians found the quality of sound that abounded in the Walton. Tristan Fry had fun in Variation VII (Troyte) while paying attention to Elgar’s carefully marked accents and dynamics. ‘Nimrod’ was taken too fast, though; I subscribe to the Leonard Bernstein school of “as slow as possible and then just a little slower” for this Variation. Handley raced towards the climax without the benefit of the emotional build-up this movement requires.

The ‘Romanza’, marked with three asterisks, requires the timpanist to recreate the gentle sound of an ocean-liner’s engines, something of a dilemma regarding whether to use side drum sticks or take up Elgar’s own suggestion of two half-crown coins, the latter producing exactly the effect that the composer was looking for. Tristan Fry had sticks made with hard tips on one side and soft on the other, which looked impressive, but the sound was rather loud, more akin to a speed-boat – not the solution needed.

The concluding Variation, Elgar’s self-portrait, compensated for the fairly ordinary rendition of the work’s earlier part. The return of the ‘Caroline Alice theme’ was just right this time with the shimmering violas and second violins in perfect contrast to the syncopated firsts and cellos. The only thing missing was the organ, admittedly designated ad lib; extravagant, maybe, but nevertheless an important addition especially where it supports the harmonic framework.

The last time I heard the Oxford Philomusica was about five years ago and it has certainly improved. Gone are the shaky entries and insecure intonation, now replaced by a strong and vibrant string sound, brassy brass and perky percussion. Oxford Philomusica has a mission to establish a professional symphony orchestra in this University City and this concert suggested that this has been achieved.

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