Recently, a group of Ertegun scholars sought refuge from a particularly cold February evening at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Though the grandeur of the Ashmolean’s Victorian classical architecture is impressive even as you shoot past it on your bike, its magic was multiplied at night, in part by the rarity of this out-of-hours opening.
Awaiting us inside were the Royal Academy of Music’s String Ensemble, accompanied by soprano Hannah Fraser-Mackenzie and conducted by John Lubbock. The performers clustered at the centre of the Randolph Sculpture Gallery, with their audience radiating outwards along the width and breadth of the gallery. Though the vaulted ceilings of the gallery produced a rich acoustic, its modest floor space (once the large ensemble had been accounted for) created a feeling of intimacy quite exceptional for such performances.
The programme, though clustered around the late nineteenth and twentieth century, was tonally wide-ranging. We began with Elgar’s Sospiri (Op 70), a drowsy matin laced with a hint of anxiety that recognises, perhaps, the Great War on the horizon. Later came Vaughan Williams’ equally stormy Five variants on Dives and Lazarus, whose score tells wordlessly the troubling tale of a miserly rich man (Dives) visited by a beggar man (Lazarus), and their gruesome fates.
Yet these darker moments were punctuated by lighter ones; namely, the folk songs of Quilter and Britten. Fraser-Mackenzie’s playful theatrics for Britten’s Folk songs, particularly ‘Oliver Cromwell’ (‘If you want any more you can sing it yourself, / Hee-haw, sing it yourself’), delighted the audience, just as, in a letter to conductor Albert Goldberg in October 1941, Britten himself said they had: ‘I have arranged a few British folksongs which have been a ‘wow’ wherever performed so far!’ Seventy years later, these ditties were just as well-received.
For me, though, the real ‘wow’ of the evening was what came next. Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane for harp and strings are a masterpiece of gossamer Impressionism. Harp cadenzas meet rising strings in a piece torn between the sacred rhythms of religious chant and something lusher, delicate and seductive. Though announcing itself less boldly than the Simple Symphony (Op 4) of Britten’s that formed the evening’s finalé, the spell it cast on me was more powerful for its subtlety. A finely-chosen, well-rounded menu, served with finesse by this talented young ensemble.