French Fancies- Oxford University Sinfonietta on top form

I’m sitting in a room in the music faculty watching the Oxford University Sinfonietta in rehearsal listening to the folk-like melody of an oboe over a bed of hushed strings, gradually the music swells to an expressive outburst of colour before dying back to leave behind a lonely reminiscence on the horn. The effect is magical. In the past this ensemble have been known for their highly adventurous programming having played, for example, Ligeti’s Nouvelles Adventures and Birtwistle’s Silbury Air alongside the works of obscure renaissance composers, but this term’s repertoire takes a slightly different turn. Based around a selection of French composers- Rameau, Ravel, Varese and Poulenc- the music retains a focus on the 20th century, and provides an opportunity to hear some less well known works, but largely avoids extremes.

It’s great to hear how this change is reflected in their approach to the music, a model of restraint and clarity. Ravel’s le Tombeau de Couperin is precise and elegant with the ebb and flow of the music well handled despite the difficulty of the wind writing. The anti-extravagance of their approach provides a good match for Ravel’s music, a quasi neo-classical retake on some old fashioned styles. The string centred sound of Poulenc’s Sinfonietta interplays the dry, stark gesture of the opening unison with smoothly flowing melodies. Again the tone is neo-classical featuring a sonata form structure alongside an ironic juxtaposition of naive simplicity with more starkly dissonant music. Even in rehearsal the ensemble are well balanced with every detail of articulation clearly defined.

The Sinfonietta will be performing these two works alongside Rameau’s Overture to Zais and Varese’s Octandre in the atmospheric acoustic of St Peter’s College Chapel, a concert that I personally am very much looking forward to.

The concert will take place on Tuesday 5th March at 8:30 pm, tickets £10/£5 on the door or through email at [email protected]