The annual Durham Cathedral concert by DUOS comprised three symphonies by Saint-Saens, Prokofiev and Mahler, performed by the two orchestras of the society, Chamber and Symphony.
The Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Theo Golden, kicked off the concert with Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 2. A very crisp opening; immediately one can tell the responsiveness and musicality of the orchestra are top-class. The pizzicato was a tad untidy at the beginning, but this quickly sorted itself. The subsequent fugal entries throughout the orchestra were very clearly heard, though I felt could have been even more furious. Balance across the orchestra was excellent, particularly among woodwinds. Fantastic energy from the orchestra as a whole, though sole double bassist Nathanael Thomas-Atkin was especially good I thought!
The second movement had beautifully sensitive phrasing and tone among all players, with perfect pizzicato among cellos and bass. The Scherzo third movement kicks off with fury again, and although I wasn’t quite wrenched out of my seat it was very strong, with excellent intonation. The syncopated phrases here occasionally became on-the-beat; synchronisation could have been tighter in places. The excitement returned in the fourth movement, and although the rhythms were clear, I would have liked equal intensity on each triplet quaver. The pauses were excellently timed, with crisp direction from Theo and attentive ensemble playing from the orchestra, before a brilliantly defined conclusion.
The Prokofiev began with excitement, despite slightly messy strings. The following octave string crossing in the violins could also have been cleaner and somewhat less frantic. The rest of the work continued to be performed with just the right character, from the dainty second movement to the energetic finale. The Durham Cathedral acoustic works wonders with the orchestra; a thoroughly strong performance from DUOS Chamber.
Following Chamber, we have the Symphony Orchestra, performing Mahler’s 5th Symphony. The titanic work begins with a famous trumpet solo, played wonderfully by Martha Dean, before a great crash as the orchestra shows off its muscles. Martha’s phrasing and power were just right; performing this and further solos in a packed Cathedral is no mean feat. The intensity from all was suitably bombastic and passionate when required throughout, with percussion as always giving an extra kick. The three double basses had excellent presence and united pizzicato. Occasionally I felt violins could have drawn out their phrasing even longer, though.
The roaring second movement is justly conducted with concise and energetic gesturing from their three-year conductor, Alex Mackinder. Intonation in the violins was sometimes a little scratchy in the faster areas, although this improved. Beautiful musicality and guided phrasing were expressed by the solo cellos, albeit not always being absolutely together. Although sometimes a little more crescendo towards climaxes would round off some phrases better, the passionate and emotional tone from the strings in the latter half of the movement coupled with excellent intonation was fabulous.
The Scherzo features Oonagh Taylor on the obligatto horn leading the music, being stood for the movement. Her timbre was excellent, as was that of the horn section as a whole. The pizzicato string quartet section followed by the whole string family was great. The following oboist had beautiful line albeit a little too loud, before a perfect clarinet solo. Alex works with the acoustic of the space to the upmost, allowing its ethereal resonance to die away to just the right level in a pause before moving on. An electrifying coda finishes off the spirited movement.
Love incarnate arises in the romantic fourth movement. Emotive vibrato and an intimate strings and harp texture very much remind me of its cousin lied, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. Anguishing dissonances and chords generally were very well-balanced. The song concludes with exquisite dynamic control to nothingness before the attacca into the final movement, though I was yearning for just a little more bass rumble on the tonic to soothe that final chord.
Our slumber is gently awoken by the call of a blissful solo horn, signalling the finale. The complex Bachian double-fugue begins, and though the first violin entry felt a tad quiet the following entries were brilliantly judged. The brass fanfare announces its presence with gusto, blaring away with bells raised into the air before the arrival of a joyous climax, with a well-controlled ritenuto from Alex. After a surprise humorous detour at the last second, the work concludes with a shout, which although didn’t quite hit me like the opening crash of the symphony, was epic all the same. Once again, DUOS Symphony demonstrates its passion and energy in bringing to life one of the true greats of the 20th Century symphonic repertoire, and one of Alex’s favourite works, to conclude his four-year association with the society.
Many congratulations to Theo Golden of Chamber and Alex Mackinder of Symphony for all their work in directing the orchestras this year, and of course much praise to the excellent musicians of the society as a whole. I do very much encourage you to listen to the orchestras again next term, on 23 November in Elvet Methodist and 7 December in Durham Castle Great Hall, under the direction of new maestros and a fresh intake of Durham University’s finest players.