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Arnold Bax and Jack Moeran together again in Ireland

Tuesday 7 June 2005, 8pm

John Field Room, National Concert Hall, Dublin

Degani Ensemble 

An unusual and, in the second half at least, splendid concert took place in the John Field Room of Dublin’s National Concert Hall on 7 June. The Degani Ensemble, consisting of principals, or former principals, of the RTE Orchestras, performed chamber works for oboe and strings by Mozart, Britten, E.J.Moeran and Bax, as well as a String Trio by Schubert. The members of the Ensemble are Ruby Ashley, oboe, Alan Smale and Elaine Clark, violins, John Lynch, viola, and David James, cello. There is a tenuous link between Moeran and one of the players. John Lynch studied at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne, where Moeran’s widow, Piers Coetmore, had been professor of cello. To this day an oil painting of Piers hangs by the Reception at the College, under which the Moeran connection is explained.

The musicians had to battle against the very dull acoustic of a concert room which doubles as a bar for orchestral concerts in the main hall of the NCH (though such a dual purpose venue might well have appealed to at least two of the evening’s composers!). That said, a fine balance was achieved between all the instruments, whilst the incisive, reedy tone of Ruby Ashley – more akin to that of Leon Goossens himself, for whom the three British works were composed, than the heavier, fatter tone favoured by many oboists today - secured an appropriate prominence in the midst of the string textures. The first two works were of the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century, Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F, K 370 and Schubert’s String Trio Movement in B Flat, D 471. After a slightly shaky start to the Mozart by the oboist – her only weak spot all evening – both these pieces were given neat performances, though the ungrateful acoustic emphasised a certain blandness in the playing. With the sinister mood of the solo cello figure at the opening of Britten’s Phantasy Quartet of 1932, we knew we had made the transition to twentieth-century music. This sinister figure, recurring at the end of the work, framed a central part, introduced by the oboe, which is lyrical in character, and the musicians in developing this theme, showed greater passion and energy than in their performance of the classical works.

This more committed playing proved to be the forerunner of the evening’s highlights in the second half of the concert, Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet of 1946 and Bax’s Oboe Quartet of 1922. It was a visit to familiar places in Norfolk in May 1946 – where, twenty years earlier, Moeran had collected folk songs – which aroused the composer’s interest in fulfilling a request from Leon Goossens for an oboe piece. ‘I have now decided that the work will be a Quartet. I think I am getting the shape of it. Anyhow, I want the weekend to let the general atmosphere soak in’, he wrote to Piers Coetmore. To Dick Jobson in Radnor Moeran wrote: ‘I board and lodge in this little pub overlooking Rockland Broad. In the evening I go out rowing on the ‘Lonely Waters’. This reedy neighbourhood seems to suggest oboe music’. Even more than Britten’s piece (as far as I could judge – I was hearing the Britten for the first time) Moeran’s work reflects the pattern of the single movement Fantasy chamber works which W.W. Cobbett promoted in the early part of the century. That is to say, most of the musical material derives from a single theme – played at the opening by the oboe – and the work is divided into sections and episodes that vary the theme and are interlinked by re-statements of the theme. The theme itself is a beautiful one and, in its second bar, recalls the opening of the A Minor String Quartet completed in Norfolk in 1921. Despite a hint of sadness and struggle here and there, the mood of the piece is predominantly cheerful, with its occasional snatches of Norfolk folk tunes in the episodes. Perhaps the loveliest variant, roughly midway through the work, is a slow aria sung by the oboe, introduced and accompanied by muted strings, an _expression, surely, of utter serenity. Yet there is also much vigour and high spirits throughout the piece which, in Lewis Foreman’s words, ‘reflects Moeran’s rediscovered delight in the countryside of his boyhood’. Such brightness was unusual for a work written by the composer around 1946, and its composition clearly represented a welcome respite from the dark, melancholic preoccupations of one of his greatest masterpieces, the Cello Sonata, which Moeran was in the midst of composing. By and large the Degani Ensemble, with oboist Ruth Ashley leading the way, succeeded in conveying the spirit of the piece.

The performance of Bax’s Oboe Quintet was the true climax of the concert. For one thing the sound was even richer with the addition of a second violin. Played by the co-leader of the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, Elaine Clark grasped every opportunity given to her by Bax in a second violin part scarcely subordinate to that of the first violin, and her playing was more impressive and had greater flair than the comparatively wooden approach of Alan Smale, the other violinist. I have just returned from a visit, with Richard Adams, to Glencolmcille, armed with Farewell My Youth and Ian and Grace Lace’s wonderfully enlightening, illustrated account of their trip to an area, whose landscape, people and legends proved inspirational to Bax over the course of many years. Having taken in the stunning view of Glen Head from Bax’s window in Roarty’s (formerly Glen Head) Hotel, experienced the rippling stillness of the waterfall at Kilgoly where, we learned, Arnold spent many a solitary hour musing, I was really in the mood to enjoy this work, which struck me as quintessential Bax in his Irish style. Written just after the completion of the First Symphony, the Oboe Quartet is another work in which the composer was responding to the tragic events in Ireland, by now immersed in a bloody civil war. But here Bax responds not with anger, but with sorrow – and how well the plaintive tones of Ruby Ashley’s oboe helped to convey this. The mood of the rhapsodic first movement is predominantly dark. It is based on an attractive theme which, however, is constantly accompanied by descending phrases of mournful character, as, for example, in the oboe’s first entry. At one point the oboe utters piercing cries of anguish, to which the strings add their own troubled voices, with insistent repetitions of pizzicato and tremolando phrases by violins and viola and of a four-note figure by the cello. In the second movement the strings introduce a gorgeous tune, which in this performance was initially underplayed in the first violin’s contribution. To this listener the tune came across as another of Bax’s laments for the Ireland that had largely been lost to him. Then the oboe plays phrases that in part are imitative of bird song, both unaccompanied and against the background of the tune, but this lark descends into its lowest, darkest register. Eventually the oboe has the tune beneath which are uneasy mutterings by the strings. In the third movement the composer brushes aside his sombre mood and introduces an Irish jig of his own invention, which was suitably brisk in the Degani Ensemble’s performance. But the jollity is disturbed from time to time by darker musings, as when Bax brings in a variant of a traditional folk tune ‘The Lament of the Sons of Usna’. In addition to its tunefulness the work impresses with the variety of its string writing and with the wide range of colour Bax thereby obtains. I should imagine that each part is a joy to play. As they stood to receive the warm applause, the members of the Degani Ensemble certainly looked as if they had enjoyed the piece immensely.