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Antonino PASCULLI (1842-1924)
Virtuoso Oboe Music

Characteristic Study – Le Api (The Bees); Grand Concerto on themes from ‘I vespri Siciliani’ by Verdi; Fantasia on themes from ‘Les Huguenots’ by Meyerbeer; Concerto on themes from ‘La Favorita’ by Donizetti; Fantasia on themes from ‘Poliuto’ by Donizetti
Christopher Redgate (oboe); Stephen Robbings (piano)
Rec. Gateway Studio, Kingston-upon-Thames June, Sept 1996, Nov 1998
OBOE CLASSICS CC2006 [58.12]

Question: who invented circular breathing? Now, my eldest son, who plays the didgeridoo, tells me that it must have been the ancient aborigines as the only way to keep the long pedal notes going in their music is through this method. Well, Christopher Redgate, the star oboeist on this disc, in his excellent programme notes to this CD, wonders if it was Antonino Pasculli. Perhaps he was the first to expect oboists to play a continuous stretch of semiquavers without a break for four minutes on end. He was certainly only one of a number of oboe virtuosi during the 19th Century (look up Casimir Lalliet 1837-92 or Stanislas Verroust 1814-63) although he was probably the most extraordinary,

Curiously, his career was short-lived due to failing eye-sight in early middle age. He appears not to have had any music written for him. It seems that the pieces recorded here were for himself to play and therefore mostly date from the 1870s and 1880s. They consist of Fantasias and three movement concertos using themes from some of the popular Italian operas then in vogue, some now almost completely forgotten. They are nicely composed and allow much opportunity for the performer to show lyrical expression as well as agile register-crossing and lightning-fast fingerwork. All of this is superbly handled by Christopher Redgate who can often be found in avant-garde repertoire where virtuosity of musicianship as well as technicality is vital.

Pasculli is describe by Redgate as ‘the Paganini of the oboe’. Sadly he was not such a comparably talented composer and I must say that for me these works had to be taken one at a time as I soon wearied of them. However they each push virtuosity on the instrument to a spectacular level and Redgate negotiates everything with immaculate aplomb.

The CD starts (and it would surely have been better placed in the middle of the recital) with ‘The Bees’. This is a four minute non-stop romp which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. I would almost say that it is the most difficult oboe piece ever composed. However having recently heard music by and composed for Heinz Holliger I am probably wrong but perhaps not so very far off the mark. It is this piece that demands circular breathing but it also this piece which demanded a better recording. The boxy sound and the lack of dynamic contrast which seems to result makes me feel somewhat relieved when it is over. I feel particular sorry for Stephen Robbings whose assured and sensitive accompanying is a little lost by poor microphoning.

The ‘Fantasias’ fall into four or five movements each separately tracked but played without a break. Each contains several themes contrasted in speed and key. The concertos (were they ever orchestrated?) are more classical generally consisting of a portentous piano introduction leading to an Allegro. Then comes a slower middle movement which, in the case of the Donizetti ‘La Favorita’, is a theme and variations. There is an Allegro finale but again with a slow introduction led by the piano. Normally each concerto has two complex and virtuoso cadenzas which are by Pasculli himself.

Don’t be put off by the horridly gaudy cover which seems to have amongst its neon lights a crucified Christ (!) because this is an incredible CD for everyone who enjoys brilliant performers and performances. Not however for listeners who prefer profound music.

Gary Higginson


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