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Though Lovers Be Lost - Music shadowing the two world wars
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) Temporal Variations (1936) [12:58]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Interlude (1933-1936) arranged by Howard Ferguson for Oboe and Piano [12:21]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Le Tombeau de Couperin – Prelude; Forlane; Menuet; Rigaudon (1914-17) arranged by Daniel Pailthorpe [18:29]
Henri DUTILLEUX (b.1916) Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1947) [11:13]
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962) Concerto in One Movement, Op. 45 (1927) [13:11]
Emily Pailthorpe (oboe); Julian Milford (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 15-16 September 2000. DDD
OBOE CLASSICS CC2008 [69:13]

 

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 revealed.

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 innocent pleasures.

Maybe this 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 stated.

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.

The Temporal 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.

Unusually, they 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 learners!

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.

Furthermore Britten 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.

Interestingly, Montagu 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 Howard Ferguson.

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.

The Interlude 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 experience.

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 not convinced.

Henri Dutilleux 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 works.

Apparently many 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 ‘scherzo’ music.

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!

John France

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