Baroque music is pretty old, isn’t it? But the great thing is, you don’t have to have the advanced years of a Brandenburg Concerto to put it on. The Oxford Philomusica has been active for little more than a decade – and they rushed through the pouring rain to play at the similarly young St George’s Bristol. Both institutions have earned a solid reputation within the challenging commercial landscape that is “arts outside London”, and with a damp audience who were likely very familiar with the programme, I was glad to be in safe hands.

Mahan Esfahani © Marco Borggreve
Mahan Esfahani
© Marco Borggreve

A fine selection of Oxford University’s orchestra in residence assembled around director Mahan Esfahani to make up the ensemble “The Soloists of Oxford Philomusica”. And soloists they all are! The programme had massive scope for individual displays of virtuosity. Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor requires of the flautist great shifts of mood; an effect which Anthony Robb executed very competently. Robb’s best mode was the pomposity of the Minuet and it was pleasing to see him quickly turn to an air of mischief for the succeeding Badinerie. Unfortunately the flute was a little difficult to hear when the violin accompaniment was at its most vigorous. Audibility was more of a problem during Bach’s Keyboard Concerto no. 2 in E major, which followed a little later. I’m aware that the harpsichord is by its nature not a pianoforte, but it was a great shame to miss some of the first movement’s liveliest keyboard writing. Nevertheless, Mahan Esfahani’s excellent musicianship shone through in a dialled-down second movement which began to simply ache with tension and release.

Surely one of the great opportunities for virtuosity in Baroque music is the Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 in D major. What begins as a joint-honours concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord, grows into the seminal emergence of the keyboard as a solo instrument. Esfahani carefully explained the importance of the first movement’s harpsichord solo from the perspective of a “lowly musician”, contrasting his reading of Bach with that of academia. He went on to give the passage a thorough and passionate treatment, worthy of its importance. Without obstructing the flow of the concert or distracting from its content, he may just have advanced the argument that music is better listened to than analysed.

Running parallel to all the aforementioned virtuosity, solos, melody and countermelody, was a solid bass section whose full tone anchored each piece and kept tempo when the director’s hands were at the keys. The acoustic at St George’s is particularly good to basses and cellos, and it’s a great pleasure to hear their offerings so crisply. The audience must have all been familiar with the cello part of Pachelbel’s canon, less so the pace; the basso continuo went off at a canter and the unfamiliar tempo brought with it a new kind of life to the piece. True, the hanging suspensions of the final third were not quite as… suspended, but rhythmic details passing through the canonical violins were given a real lift.

The Oxford Philomusica have a great pool of talented solo players; this much is obvious to all who have seen them. Less obvious, though undoubtedly there too, was the quality of ensemble interaction that was going on in the accompaniment. Soloists would complete their duties as the focal point of one number and then return to the mass of accompanying players and interact with them on matters of phrasing and dynamics. To put it simply: great teamwork! Despite the slight audibility and balance issues, this youthful group of musicians excelled at solo and accompaniment playing, which made for a very compelling concert indeed.