After my review of the Classical Ensemble’s previous spectacular performance in Michaelmas, I was keen to hear them again this term. They certainly did not disappoint, offering a varied, and indeed long programme, ranging from Handel to Beethoven.

The concert begins with a surprise; a resounding fanfare from the back of the Church, the March from Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary. Although I’d seen the select musicians move behind me earlier, I completely forgot about it, so it was a genuine surprise, and a wonderful effect! Very nice authentic ornamentation in the brass, and a good start to grab the audience’s attention.

The next piece on the programme was Marianne von Martinez’s Sinfonia in C major. Great dynamic control and energy on display, although with occasional intonation issues in the upper strings and flutes. It’s wonderful that DUCE, as well as other Durham ensembles like the Hill Orchestra, are promoting the works of female composers, particularly on their own merit; Martinez, not only a highly accomplished performer of her day but the earliest known female symphonist, sports great imagination in her 1770 symphony, with wonderful phrasing, rhythmic vitality, and light Viennese elegance, which DUCE brought out to the fore.

Mozart’s A Musical Joke followed, to much delight to the audience. Purposeful wrong notes and the effect of incorrectly tuned horns encouraged plenty of laughs from audience members, especially the concluding chords of the fourth movement, aptly described in the programme notes as a ‘riotous and silly polytonal mess’, finishing off the piece with great gusto. Within the piece however were also wonderfully beautiful passages. The string quartet of the third movement was particularly lovely, with special congratulations to leader Millie Harding, whose extensive solo playing was exquisitely done.

To conclude the first half, the opening movement of Handel’s famous Music for the Royal Fireworks commences. Brilliant trumpet playing and great energy from the timpani shone through, with an overall fabulous energy proving an excellent round-off to the first half.

The second half begins with another work by Mozart, his ecstatic Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. Great energy on display, although I would have liked even more of a sudden explosion in that most famous of climaxes at the opening. Woodwinds also need to ensure they’re always precisely with the beat of their conductor, Rob King. Good start though.

Finally, we come to the crown jewel of the evening, Beethoven’s rousing Emperor Concerto. His fifth and last piano concerto, it is a staple work in the classical canon, and an ambitious task for debut concerto soloist, Will Melling. Tackled masterfully by all, Beethoven’s signature musical style ringing round St Oswald’s with great power and grace, in his 250th anniversary year. Will’s playing is highly commendable; his legato arpeggios flowing effortlessly between the hands and rapid scalic passages approached with great dexterity. On occasion I sought a little more smoothness and broader phrasing in melodic passages, but overall it was certainly a brilliant performance, noted by a rapturous audience. Orchestra and piano complemented each other wonderfully, albeit with occasional issues of ensemble. On the whole, DUCE gave the work precisely the heroism and intensity that characterised Beethoven’s middle period and paid due homage to his anniversary.

A huge congratulations to the executive committee and the whole society for all their hard work in putting on this performance, in what has turned out to be the penultimate concert of term amid the pandemic. It is with great satisfaction that I recommend audiences to come and see DUCE at their next performance, whenever it might be.

Edward Walters