Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

English Oboe Concertos
Michael HURD (b. 1928) Concerto da Camera
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-88) Oboe Concerto (1953)
William BLEZARD (b.1921) Two Celtic Pieces
John GARDNER (b.1917) Oboe Concerto (1990)
Philip LANE (b. 1950) Three Spanish Dances (1981)
Jill Crowther (oboe)
English Northern Philharmonia/Alan Cuckston
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ASV have become practised hands at anthologising. Their three volumes of British Light Music have been the ideal complement to the three Hyperions conducted by Ronald Corp especially where Hyperion tend to concentrate on the more famous pieces. The ASV series also complements the ambitious Marco Polo catalogue.

Arguments about categorising music into light and not so light are not necessarily that productive. However, while some works here delightfully answer to that call, others are just as clearly on the other side of that hazy 'fence'.

Michael Hurd's concerto is just about in the light category. Light in the sense that that word appears in the word 'delight'. This is highly romantic and in it the oboe becomes the delectable singer of nasally trilling eloquence. The work is a cousin to the Malcolm Arnold concerto (surely the princess among Arnold's mass of concise concertos). It trumps the Arnold in its plenitude of grace - a quality it draws down from the Finzi Interlude. The rocking middle movement has the gentle touch of Fauré's Pavane. The pert finale rounds off a gorgeous work which sets a challenge not completely met by the other works on this disc. The whole thing is over in 12 concise and gorgeous minutes.

Leighton's is a more harmonically spiced concerto. It was not heard during the composer's lifetime. While the ears may be gently challenged he does not dishonour the oboe's singer soul. Strange how the sultry string lines suggest Bax. This is a 20 minute concerto comparable frequently with the bleaker parts of the Finzi Cello Concerto (to be given at the 2001 Henry Wood BBC Proms). This music might even have influenced Thomas Wilson's music for the BBCTV adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Cloud Howe and more plausibly the Finzi Clarinet Concerto in the harmonic 'crunch' of its opening string broadside. Arnold is hinted at in finale and there is more than a touch of the darting and cross-cutting Tippett as well as Vaughan Williams from the Partita.

The Gardner manages to conjure up a classical Beethovenian feeling with a hint of Tippett along the way. It is hesitant like Geoffrey Burgon's nostalgic music for Brideshead Revisited. The finale is all vernal rush and flood.

Blezard was another of those British composers whose music was an occasional fixture at Matinée Musicale. The Highland Lament sings wistfully almost a-buzz with Delian fireflies. This is an utterly delightful work rather like the Arnold Scottish Dances. The accompanying Irish whirligig is out of the same box. I am sure that Philip Lane who has done so much to drive the renaissance of British light music and film music, would have been a regular on Matinee Musicale had that programme still been running on BBC Radio 3. Lane contributes Three Spanish Dances: light as feather-down and spicy as tapas. The Malaguena is the prize of the three.

Jill Crowther is principal cor anglais with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and is also a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

This is an award-winning collection made irresistible by the Michael Hurd concerto. The only small cloud is the lightly audible click of the levers.

Rob Barnett

David Wright has also listened to this disk

This is a very important disc and the sound and performances are extremely good. The soloist has a super tone and an engaging style, accuracy, poise and, a rare commodity ... presence. It is one of those things hard to explain but when you have been a musician as long as I have you know it when it is there.

Alan Cuckston, our most distinguished harpsichordist, and distinguished in many other things as well, conducts with a quiet confidence, no excesses or idiosyncrasies but is simply unobtrusive yet effective. He clearly understands both roles of support and accompaniment.

Not all this music thrills me. Nor will it you, although the disc contains no inaccessible music. It is curious that the oboe, particularly, demands a music which suits it and has to fit it like a glove.

Michael Hurd once told me that he was not treated as a serious composer because he had written two 'pop' cantatas. That is a sad prejudice. His Concerto da Camera of 1969 is a very attractive work with a mellow, often glowing string accompaniment particularly in the central moderato movement. It has a pastoral anachronistic feel about it and is, to my ears, unashamedly English, recalling England in its days of greatness and enviable moral and social manners. The music is not pompously decadent or Edwardian ... and we should all rejoice in that ... it has a charm that is not sentimental and a grace that reminds me of Mendelssohn whom Hurd has written about. His love for Mendelssohn is admirable for I too share a very deep respect for that composer. The finale is light-hearted and many remind some of Alan Rawsthorne's happier style as in his Piano Concerto no. 1, for the slow movement of which Rawsthorne was indebted to another British composer.

Leighton's Concerto is more substantial. It dates from 1953 but was not performed in his lifetime. Leighton had the good fortune to study with Petrassi but all his life he was beset with self-doubts and was always emulating the styles of others. This concerto has strong European influence and the great Bartók is not far away. In passages which are warm, the Mediterranean is nearby. It is a pity that he never found an original voice.

This concerto is in three movements and the first two are really slow movements lasting a total of 15 minutes whereas the quick finale lasts 5 minutes. The concerto is therefore heavily over-weighted. It is like the Violin Concerto of Samuel Barber which, while it contains some beautiful music, is over-weighted as well. It is hard to maintain committed interest in Leighton's concerto because of the lack of tempi or rather the lack of tempi with real contrast. There are some very effective passages en route but I am left with the notion that this is note-spinning and filling out time. I fear that I am old-fashioned and expect a real contrast between movements. Here I was disappointed.

In my view Leighton excels at chamber music. His two string quartets are very fine. The Oboe Concerto meanders and loses its way having no real sense of direction. It seems to want to explore emotions and the music is so intense that I was felt I was being examined on my own psychiatrist's couch. European influences give way to something mildly English in the finale. I find the concerto too intense. Others may find it profound.

William Blezard is known for his accompaniment skills with such people as Joyce Grenfell and Marlene Dietrich. His Two Celtic Pieces are beautifully written and played and he has brilliantly avoided caricature as does Philip Lane in his Three Spanish Dances. Mr Lane is to be commended for his restoring of film music. His dances are not over-ripe and, thankfully, there are no stomping feet or infuriating castanets.

The Concerto for oboe and strings of John Gardner is, without doubt, the best piece on this welcome disc. It is a successful three movement work, well-crafted and expertly designed. You can see and hear where the music is going. It is logical and a contrast to the Leighton. The simplicity of Gardner's utterance does not make the music banal but endearing. While not everyone may share my view this is a good, very good in fact, old-fashioned, concerto. The opening movement is balanced with expert contrasts and while the music is not psychologically oppressive, as perhaps the Leighton is, it is serious. That comes from the natural evolution of the music. It has form, shape and comeliness. It is memorable. Not all music is. The slow movement is a gem. From the opening string introduction you are immediately aware that you are in for something special and you are not disappointed. Here is a movement of real class. And what a tune! The 'anguish' of the oboe in a very telling melody is nothing short of superb. Simply exquisite! Its sensitivity could not be better judged. This is not treacle music ... thick, sticky and very sweet - nor is there the ghastly nostalgia of constant repetition. Perhaps the strings could have been slightly more persuasive but that is a minor quibble. The finale begins in a sort of clever disguise but blossoms when the mists have rolled away. I adored the glorious woody viola tone, so seductive and sensual. Oh there is so much to admire here. The movement may not the most successful movement but it does not deter from a lovely concerto.

The string playing is remarkably good. Mr Cuckston does not emulate Edwardian pompous majesty but maintains a clarity of texture which makes the music breathe and therefore live!

David Wright

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