An introductory reading by local writer Philip Pullman was an appropriate introduction to the “Dusk to Dawn” concert, one of the last in this year’s Oxford Chamber Music Festival (themed “Fairytales and Fantasy”). The collision of a light-hearted surface with darker undertones was not just in Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm stories, but pervaded Artistic Director Priya Mitchell’s programming. An eclectic combination ranging from Beethoven to Tabakova, the evening featured a cluster of talented performers from across Europe. As the lights dimmed, the opening artist Natacha Kudritskaya held the audience in a prolonged silence before embarking upon Ravel’s virtuoso suite.

Priya Mitchell
Priya Mitchell

Unfortunately, the performance was marred by Kudritskaya’s decision to re-start the piece due to rustling in the audience. The first movement seemed particularly tense for both performer and audience, and Kudritskaya lacked the sense of spaciousness which the delicate texture requires. I felt that the technical element of her playing (largely assured, but with a few note mistakes) seemed to be disconnected from Ravel’s evocative musical pictures. Although she clearly revelled in certain moments (particularly the climactic sections of “Scarbo”), a more sustained emotional connection was required in order to bring the piece to life. Kudritskaya’s strength was in the quiet passages: the bleak second movement carried a mute horror comparable to Munch’s The Scream.

A change of programming saw Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 10 replace a Schubert fantasia, bringing Priya Mitchell and Alasdair Beatson to the stage. The two were well paired, bringing an air of thoughtfulness to the pastoral calm of the sonata. Mitchell’s crystalline tone was commanding, yet she was sensitive to the subtle transformations of character and mood. I found her restraint of vibrato in the second movement particularly affecting, preventing the nostalgic feel created by Beatson from tipping over too far into the sentimental. The interpretation of the sonata was well-balanced without seeming too conservative: indeed, the third movement was fiery and desperate. Although this effect came at the expense of tone at points during the Scherzo, the passagework was tossed about with a carefree air. Mitchell’s poise continued into the lengthy and wide-ranging fourth movement, where Beatson was crucial in creating continuity between the episodes. Beethoven’s musical jokes sparkled, and the pair’s vibrant interpretation was met with enthusiasm.

The festival’s composer in residence, Dobrinka Tabakova, eased the audience into the second half with an introduction to her piece Midnight. Tabakova’s intricate and logical motivic process underpins the fragmentary and meandering episodes of the piece, evoking a fantastical dream world. Kudritskaya returned to the stage to give a sensitive performance, her wonderful voicing bringing a glowing resonance to the chords.

It was Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht which was the electrifying pinnacle of the evening. The musicians clustered in a circle in the centre of the room, lending immediacy to the performance. The dark intensity inherent to the mystical piece was present from the very opening and lurked beneath the surface throughout. Each musician was deeply invested in the performance, resulting in a kaleidoscope of textures from veiled and delicate to raw and passionate. My only criticism would be that there were too many climactic moments: the emotional abandonment of the players sacrificed a wider-scale view of the piece. Although all excelled, the melting tone of Maxim Rysanov marked him out as particularly notable amongst the players. Despite the loss of energy just before the piece’s close (thus weakening the resolution), the performance managed to capture the expressive range with fire.

All of the performances clearly demonstrated why these musicians are held in high regard. The subtle painting of atmosphere was particularly effective in the intimate setting of the Holywell Music Room, and the passionate interpretations showed the works at their best. Mitchell’s programming threw each work in a new light, and I look forward to seeing what she devises for next year.

****1