Striking demonstration from the Oxford Philharmonic of what music can be aurally and visually

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rameau & Bach, Music and Maths: Baroque and Beyond: Marcus du Sautoy (presenter), Tamás András, Charlotte Scott, Alicja Smietana (violins), Anthony Robb (flute), Peter Facer (oboe), Christian Barraclough (trumpet), Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor/harpsichord) with Mathias Gmachl (Chaldni plate artist). Streamed live from the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford via Facebook on 18.4.2021. (CD & CC)

Oxford Philharmonic perform the Second Brandenburg Concerto

RameauLes Boréades: The Arts and The Hours

Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in B minor, BWV 1043; Brandenburg Concerto No.2 in F, BWV 1047

This was the latest instalment in the Oxford Philharmonic’s joint concerts with Professor Marcus du Sautoy, bringing together the worlds of music and maths, a concert made possible by a grant from the Culture Recovery Fund via Arts Council England, and filmed by Apple and Biscuit Recordings. With a virtual audience that ranged from Sheffield to Fort Worth to Malta and probably far beyond, this is a beautiful way to bring together learning and the experience of magnificent music.

Du Sautoy is a mathematician by training and now The Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University as well as being an enthusiastic trumpeter. This concert was streamed live on YouTube from Oxford’s splendid Sheldonian theatre (designed by Sir Christopher Wren with help from one of his mathematician acquaintances at Oxford). Appropriate social distancing was observed throughout.

On this occasion, the concert focused on the Baroque period with three pieces, one by Rameau and two by Bach.

The concert started with du Sautoy exploring similarities between the development of science and maths during this period and how thinking about music developed at the same time. Explorations over this period ranged from how best to tune a keyboard – which of course depends on the mathematical relationship between the frequencies of the notes – to more abstract ideas, such as whether there are fundamental laws that govern the composition of music.

Rameau himself believed that he had discovered how to simplify musical composition from the study of over a thousand chords down to two simpler building blocks. We heard some luxurious-sounding Rameau, a decidedly tendre ‘The Arts and The Hours’ from Les Boréades. ‘The instruments almost sound like planets orbiting the sun,’ observed du Sautoy.

One clear analogy between how physical sciences and music developed in parallel over this period is in the development of thinking about how a body being stationary or being in motion mirrors the musical ideas of consonance and dissonance. Newton at around this time explored the laws of motion whilst Rameau was interested in how dissonance affected the development of music.

With his Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principles naturels, Rameau, a significant theorist as well as composer, concerned himself with the resolution of dissonance which led to the underlying principle of the fundamental bass. Interestingly, he was seen as a scientist by those around him in his exploration of the importance of chords in music, on the vertical axis as well as horizontal (or, put another way, chords and melodies) and how this makes sense of where music is heading.

Du Sautoy himself took to the virtual podium to demonstrate how a change in a note in one instrument can cause dissonance, thus forcing another instrument to move in turn. He drew an analogy between this and Newton’s cradle, where one moving ball forces another to move whilst achieving stasis itself (the Newton’s cradle was also a popular office toy in the 1970s).

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043 (also known as ‘the Bach Double’) received a wonderfully alive performance, positively sprightly in the outer movements. The two soloists, Tamás András and Charlotte Scott, were absolutely equal protagonists. Marios Papadopoulos lighted upon the perfect tempo for the beautiful central Lento ma non tanto. Little details of presentation made all the difference: the way the camera highlighted the lower solo violin voice at one point meant that the listener’s concentration was focused there, allowing us to relish Bach’s miraculous counterpoint to the full. Papadopoulos provided the harpsichord continuo for this piece as well as directing. The rapid finale included miraculous scamperings from the soloists; in response, the orchestra was astonishingly tight in its delivery.

The soloists in the Bach Double each played on Stradivarius violins: one owned by the soloist, the other on loan. The music was followed by an interesting discussion between du Sautoy and the soloists as to the reason why Strads have such outstanding sound quality. One theory discussed centred on unique climate conditions and the effect on wood at around the time that Strads were made in Cremona, in Italy.

Chladni plate demonstration

This was followed by the visually striking demonstration of what music can look like in the physical world. Du Sautoy demonstrated a technique developed by Ernst Chladni which shows the effect that musical notes have on sand distributed on metal plates: as the note changes so the pattern of sand changes, sometimes forming regular patterns, at other frequencies dissolving into apparently random formations.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.2 is an Everest of the trumpet repertoire. As with every brass instrument, of course, the notes in the harmonic series become closer in terms of intervals the higher one gets (and therefore the further away from the fundamental); which means that melodically it is right at the top that is the most fertile register for a composer in the days before valves. Performed here on modern instruments, this was a virtuoso performance, not least from trumpeter Christian Barraclough. The entire performance was full of vim, the solo instruments exchanging material beautifully, the second movement again perfectly paced, moving along nicely. A special word for the solo violin of Alicja Smietana; the way she leaned into suspensions was most affecting; and one must praise oboist Peter Facer for the sheer control of his instrument in its notorious lower register. A fast, nimble finale was joy itself. Congratulations particularly to Barraclough, clearly a master of his instrument. Slightly embarrassing to note that du Sautoy, an acknowledged master of numbers, gave the wrong BWV number for this piece when he introduced it as BWV 2047 instead of BWV 1047.

The only disappointing part of the concert was that, as du Sautoy noted, neither of the Bach pieces had prime number BWVs. Perhaps Orchestral Suite No.4 BWV 1069 next time?

Colin Clarke and Carl Dowthwaite

For more about the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra click here.

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