Live Review: Oxford Chamber Music

Maria Le Brun reviews Oxford Chamber Music.

Last Tuesday I went to see former BBC Young Musician of the Year and St Catz alumnus Mark Simpson and Stephen Upshaw in concert at the Holywell. The event was billed as a fringe concert which accounts for the unusual pairing of the experimental composer Berio with Brahms, the giant of the romantics.

Despite the early start time of 6pm the house lights of the Holywell were switched off leaving only a few well-placed lamps for illumination which created a distinctly intimate atmosphere. The evening began with Brahms Sonata in f minor, op 120 played by Upshaw on viola. This is such a well-known piece within the fairly limited viola repertoire that it needed to be spot-on. Unfortunately I think that perhaps Upshaw relied on the intimacy of the venue too much and allowed the huge Steinway grand played by Kate Whitely to overshadow him at times. That said, this is one of the last pieces Brahms wrote and in it he conceives the instruments as a genuine duo so that the piano is no longer simply an accompaniment but an equal to the viola (or clarinet as this piece was originally intended).

Next came the highlight of the evening – Mark Simpson playing Berio’s Sequenza for clarinet. Although this is a relatively unknown work to mainstream audiences and 20th-century music can be inaccessible, Simpson’s silky and seductive tone made the work a delightful aural experience. His stage presence was incredibly charismatic and the key difference between him and Upshaw was that he really played out to the audience and embodied the music physically. The sequenza allowed Simpson to show off his virtuosic style with a myriad of extended techniques and the most startling dynamic contrasts possible. I loved the theatre in his performance because it seemed as though he really ‘spoke’ through his clarinet in a communicative way: this sense of speech was heightened by the sensuality of hearing him breathe – something that is often missing in recordings.

Upshaw’s rendition of Berio’s viola Sequenza which followed was equally exciting in terms of drama; the opening sounded like a hive of angry bees through its full-on, confrontational texture. In a strange way all the triple-stopping which created this striking texture reminded me of a contrapuntally Bach partita for solo violin. Upshaw handled the unfortunate snapping of one of his strings in the middle of the sequenza very professionally. If anything, this just goes to show how much stress the Berio puts the instrument under.

The concert closed with the Brahms Eb sonata with Simpson on clarinet; perhaps the sunniest piece that Brahms wrote came off really well in this acoustic. The lush lyricism of the first movement and the sweeping rhapsody of the second movement in particular provided satisfying musical contrast to the angular and quirky sounds of Berio. I thought Simspon and Upshaw’s idea of pairing the relatively underrepresented instruments, the viola and clarinet together with the equally unknown Berio pieces was an ambitious project that was generally both thought-provoking and inspiring.

PHOTO / Jim Linwood