The first thing
to be considered about this problematic but highly enjoyable
CD is the title. I am not a walking ‘book of quotations’ but
I think most reasonably educated people will know that the evocative
words ‘Though Lovers be Lost’ comes from that fine poem by Dylan
Thomas – And Death shall have no Dominion. Yet this title
misses out the most important part of the ‘quote’ – ‘Though
lovers be lost love shall not ...’ it is not until the
very last sentence of the programme notes that this secret is
Now let’s get down
to the basics. This is a CD of hybrid music. Three of the pieces
were composed for oboe and piano – two of these have since been
orchestrated by the composer himself or some other person. Only
the Dutilleux seems to have been left alone. The Britten was
later orchestrated by Colin Matthews; Eugene Goossens did his
own piece. The Finzi Interlude was written originally
for Oboe and String Quartet but was transcribed for soloist
and piano by the composer’s friend Howard Ferguson. Last but
not least Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was originally
composed for piano and was orchestrated by the Frenchman himself.
However Daniel Pailthorpe has arranged four movements for oboe
and piano. Confused? Well yes, I was and my first reaction was
to run a mile – at least back to the originals – or what I regard
as the ‘best known’ versions. But I decided to compromise. I
started with Henri Dutilleux’s Oboe Sonata and then passed
on to Benjamin Britten’s Temporal Variations. Then I
took a deep breath….
But let’s take a
step back and consider the historical setting of this CD. The
programme notes suggest that the period between the two World
Wars was “one of violence, conflict, loss, nostalgia and yet
great creative energy.” This era is seen to epitomise a time
when “loss was familiar, change seemed relentless, and yet a
frenzy of exuberant artistic work was taking place.”
Now it seems to
me that every generation has felt the stress of progress – just
look at the media revolution in our own days. And just think
of the violence that takes place all round the world on a day
to day basis. Yet there has been creativity in all generations.
Perhaps we, as a species, always regard ourselves as living
in a time of change and hanker after more secure and seemingly
is the key to a number of pieces on this disc – this dichotomy
between a remembered – or half remembered - innocence and the
exciting or disturbing changes that were taking place. Only
in the Benjamin Britten work is the imagery of war explicitly
So possibly the
raison d’être of this CD is more about struggling with change
than wrestling with fascism and communism. With the exception
of the Britten all these pieces balance a nostalgia for the
past with a deep concern about the present and the future.
Variations were written partially in response to a plea
by the writer Montagu Slater. Slater, who was a left-wing dramatist,
poet and editor, had originally asked Britten to write a ‘War
Requiem’. Rather naively, Slater had imagined that if the twenty
year old Britten had written this work somehow the slide to
war would have been halted! Of course, the War Requiem
did not appear until some 28 years later, but in lieu the Temporal
Variations were completed on 12 December 1936.
were given their premiere at the Wigmore Hall only three days
later! I suppose I had always imagined that the soloist then
would have been Léon Goossens, however it was in fact Natalie
Caine with Adolph Hollis on the piano. They must have been quick
I understand the
reception of the work was somewhat luke-warm – with the critics
not really understanding the significance of what they heard.
Apparently, The Times euphemistically cited it as being ‘clever’
which probably could be interpreted as worthless. The work was
immediately withdrawn by the composer for ‘reworking’ and was
not played again until after his death.
Some critics and
musicologists have declared that this work is ‘merely’ a set
of variations – with no reference to current events or aspirations.
Others have considered it a mine of allusions and cross-references
to contemporary and not so contemporary composers.
However let us consider
when it was composed. It was at a time when the Spanish Civil
War was getting under way and when Britten had just returned
from a successful trip to the ISCM Festival in Barcelona where
his Theme and Variations for Violin and Piano had been
performed. It was almost inevitable that there would be a subtext.
In this case it was the inexorable slide to total war.
had begun to write music for the GPO Film Unit and this led
to some use of instrumental colour in the Variations
for extra-musical effect: marching, sirens and bomb blasts.
The original theme
begins somewhat obliquely before prefiguring some of the imagery
that is considered in the variations.
The seven variations
that follow are effectively ‘wartime vignettes’. These cover
such diverse images as marching, military manoeuvres (Exercises),
an Anglican Church service, a waltz for ‘mutilaté’ and a bizarre
‘polka’ which reminded me of the Berlin as portrayed by Christopher
Isherwood. However the work comes to an end with a ‘resolution’
which offers an optimistic finish to a disturbing work.
Certainly the energy
and intensity of this piece is an eloquent testimony to the
prevailing pacifist thinking that pervaded much of the intellectual
establishment in the pre-war years.
Slater, the work’s dedicatee was to write the libretto for what
many regard as Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes. And
another masterpiece was eventually performed in 1961 at Coventry
Cathedral – The War Requiem. Slater was, one way or another,
to play a hugely significant role in Britten’s musical achievement
– even if the Temporal Variations were not quite what
he originally had in mind.
The fact that we
possess Gerald Finzi’s Interlude for Oboe and Strings
is a fine thing. It would perhaps have been even better if the
composer had managed to complete his projected Suite
for which the present work would have been the middle movement.
The version we hear on this CD was prepared by Finzi’s friend
This piece could
easily be criticised as pure pastoral. Yet as with all of Finzi’s
music there is a valedictory feel. It has been defined as ‘world-weary’
but I am not sure that this is a fair judgement. More pertinently
it reflects the ‘at-one-ment’ of the composer with life and
music in general.
Furthermore it must
be realised that there are bitter sweet moments in this piece
– it is not all ‘cows leaning over gates’. Some of the harmonies
and contrapuntal lines can set up tensions that one would not
associate with the more ‘rustic’ pieces in the repertoire.
is one of a number of fine works by Finzi that just avoid becoming
better known. Naxos and Chandos have done sterling service to
the composer’s reputation – only exceeded by Lyrita in a previous
generation. I sometimes wonder if his music is just a little
too personal and introspective to gain a better hearing on Radio
3 and Classic FM.
I am not quite convinced
by the philosophy underlying the arrangements of the Ravel.
On the other hand I do accept that this music works well in
the piano and oboe incarnation and I enjoyed it as a listening
However, I do wonder
why it was thought necessary to record this work here. Surely
there are sufficient original works for the combination without
having to artificially create confections?
The reasons adduced
in the programme notes suggest that this music contrasts with,
or complements nicely, the Finzi in so far as Ravel lost many
friends in the Great War. Furthermore Pailthorpe insists that
the four selected movements of Le Tombeau, in their orchestrated
version, had prominently featured the oboe. So it was a natural
progression to this particular arrangement. And perhaps the
justification is that in the same way as the orchestral transcription
is virtually a ‘different’ work to the piano original – so this
chamber version is almost a ‘new’ work in its own right. I am
was not a composer to be easily classified. Traditionally seen
to be in the line of Ravel, Roussel and Debussy he eschewed
any particular group or school. He was close friends with at
least three members of ‘Les six’, but did not feel inclined
to become the seventh man! He has composed a wide range of music
– from symphonies, through concerti to ballet scores and chamber
of Dutilleux’s early works were destroyed by the composer because
he felt that they were too derivative of Ravel! Probably a considerable
loss to music. However after the Second World War his unique
style emerged onto the Parisian scene. The present work, the
Sonata for Oboe, was one of the first fruits of this
period and was composed in 1947 – so this is hardly a ’tween
the wars work. It is an extremely well balanced piece - totally
consistent with itself. There is a tension between the ruminative
opening ‘aria’ and the almost jaunty ‘final.’ The intervening
‘scherzo’ is rather strangely the heart of the work. It is divided
into two sections – the fast music is quite involved but the
‘trio’ section is introspective. There is no reprise of the
There is an argument
as to whether the last movement is actually ‘light’ music or
not. It could be seen as a gallivant around the boulevards of
Paris. However, my inclination is to see this as being optimistic
after the darker thoughts in the first two movements. An interesting
work – perhaps the most satisfying on this CD.
This is the first
opportunity I have had of listening to Eugene Goossens’ Concerto
in one movement in the oboe and piano version. Of course
I have heard the better known orchestral score on a few occasions
and certainly regard the work as a particular favourite. So
it was interesting to discover that the edition recorded here
is no transcription by Daniel Pailthorpe but is the original
form of the work as written by the composer in 1927. I did not
realise that Goossens had produced two versions.
It has been argued
that somehow this falls between two stools – or eras. On the
one hand the pastoral imagery of the music is important - looking
back to a lost age – presumably before the carnage of the Great
War. And, this view suggests that there is a forward-looking
element that perhaps responds to the ‘mechanised’ horrors still
to come. Yet I am not convinced. I do not see this dichotomy
here. My own thoughts suggest that it is a response to the world
about the composer in 1927. Just because the war had swept away
the ‘Edwardian hegemony’ did not imply that the composer could
not sit in an English field and respond to the age old landscape.
He does not need to prophesy the ‘blitzkrieg’ in his music in
order to feel the tensions that are in the air. And the fact
that he chose the oboe as the solo instrument almost immediately
gives the work a pastoral feel. Altogether a fine work that
evokes a variety of responses!
As with the two
previous Oboe Classics discs that I have reviewed, I am impressed
by the quality of the production. There could have been a little
bit more information about the Dutilleux and Goossens works.
However this is nit-picking. The sound quality is excellent
and the playing is second to none. The CD has been around for
a number of years now and I do wonder how popular it has been.
From my point of view it is perhaps less of a homogenous collection
inspired by a particular theme than an opportunity to add a
few desirable works to my collection of English chamber music.
I could have done without the Ravel transcription, in spite
of the fact that I found this music quite enjoyable.
One last niggle.
The cover of the CD describes Emily Pailthorpe as ‘The Jacqueline
du Pré of the Oboe’. This would not be a selling point to me
as I do not like the late cellist’s style of playing or showmanship.
And, for the record I prefer Beatrice Harrison’s interpretation
of the Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor!
However I take the
point that someone on the Gillet Competition Jury has chosen
to rate this oboist very highly and with that I would heartily
and enthusiastically concur. And the pianist, Julian Milford
- related to Robin the composer - is good too!