CLASSICAL MUSIC Oxford Contemporary Music Festival

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The modest Oxford Festival of Contemporary Music scored a hit on Saturday night in the acoustically perfect setting of Merton College Chapel for a concert of vocal music by Ockeghem, Stravinsky and Simon Bainbridge. I remember once remarking to a professional choir trainer that with amateurs like the New London Chamber Choir, who needed professionals? Last Saturday, James Wood, founder and highly professional trainer of the NLCC, proved once again that this group is simply staggering. Over long stretches of time, the integrity of tuning while not accompanied by any supporting instruments has to be heard to be believed.

James Wood took the highly unusual programming step of splitting Ockeghem's Missa pro defunctis and Stravinsky's Mass into bits, weaving the works around each other and placing in the middle the world premiere of Eicha by Simon Bainbridge. What looked weird on paper was magical in execution. Ockeghem's work is the earliest surviving Requiem Mass we know, but its length is formidable. By dividing and placing it like a sandwich filling throughout the programme - Ockeghem, Bainbridge, Stravinsky, Ockeghem, Stravinsky - at the point where restlessness with the twilight of the Gothic era threatened to obtrude, off we were whisked to another age. The correspondence across centuries between Ockeghem and Stravinsky was particularly telling; whereas Ockeghem's 15th-century idiom is today, against a context of later, lush, tonal harmony, measured as austere, Stravinsky's equally austere idiom is understood as a reaction to a lushness Ockeghem never knew. There was an almost palpable sense of "handing on" from the austere open-fifth ending of Ockeghem's Offertorium to the Sanctus of Stravinsky's Mass.

Simon Bainbridge's new work, a commission from the OFCM, is set for almost the same forces as Stravinsky's Mass - a double wind quintet, chorus and mezzo-soprano - and is designed as a companion piece. Its works well. Bainbridge has set two verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah in transliterated Hebrew, preserving a sense of distance from the literal meaning of the text. This 20-minute work seems to be a stylistic continuation of his recent, impressive, Ad Ora Incerta, a setting of four poems by Primo Levi for mezzo-soprano, solo bassoon and orchestra. In Eicha, Bainbridge again writes for melancholic mezzo, here excellently sung by Jeanette Ager, and picks out the bassoon (and rumbling contra) for special attention while luxuriating in the layering of vocal lines, sometimes as many as 13, fabulously declaimed in Merton's marvellous acoustic. The Critical Band - a group of well-known wind and brass faces - were impressive, particularly the cor anglais player, Jessica Mogridge, and trumpets, Torbjorn Hultmark and Bruce Nockles.

The previous evening, the 60th birthday of the artist and sometime composer, Tom Phillips, was celebrated in the miniature concert hall of the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building. Somehow the planners forgot to provide a box-office and a green room, so activities feel particularly informal. It was Sarah Leonard's evening even if the choice of works was by Phillips. Leonard could sing the telephone directory, convincing and charming any audience of its value, a precious gift for a singer of unevenly worthy contemporary music. Phillips' own compositions are modest affairs, by and large inspired by Cage and Cardew's view that anyone can have a go at playing or composing. Rather unwisely, Birtwistle's exquisite Three Settings of Celan followed Phillips' Six of Hearts, a work derived as a graphic score from pages of his A Heart of a Humument.

Knotty works by Webern framed this concert of fragments, many of them originally written for the Composer' Ensemble. Howard Skempton's How Slow the Wind and David Bedford's Even Now earn their keep, and were ravishingly sung by Leonard. Stefan Ashbury conducted the Oxford Festival Ensemble - another group of well-known metropolitan faces.