Contrast of repertoire
and contrast of instrumental timbre are the order of the day.
The gloaming honey of the oboe and its brethren set off by the
tangy resonance of the harpsichord. The most obvious contrast,
accentuated by alternation of works, is between Bach's sonatas
and the various 20th century British pieces. In fact, as can
be seen, three of the British items are from 1972 when the music
of Jacob and Head was being overrun by a dissonant orthodoxy
then having reached muscular maturity.
The Bach works
were originally believed to date from his Cöthen years. The
current academic convention is that they belong to the Leipzig period (1723-1750). None were originally written for
the instruments played here. BWV 1020 was for flute while BMV
1027 and 1028 were for viola da gamba. The three are nicely
varied within the recital by each being played by a different
instrument: oboe d'amore, cor anglais and oboe. They are played
with grace and eloquent feeling within the baroque conventions
familiar to all from the four orchestral suites and Brandenburg concertos.
You will almost certainly make new friends among these three
with the cor anglais being more stately and less agile and limber
than its brethren in BWV 1028 and 1020.
Let's look at the three
1972 British works. Michael Head is best known for his
songs. The surface of that heritage has hardly been scratched
as yet. We certainly need a Michel Head Edition comparable to
the work done by Hyperion for Schubert - and then they can do
the same for C.W. Orr. Head was absorbed by the British song
of which he wrote hundreds. He made the occasional foray into
intimate chamber music. There are three pieces for oboe and
piano as well as the trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. For Lady
Barbirolli and Valda Aveling he wrote this Siciliana. This is
an aristocratic piece where beauty drops in honeyed slowness
and where the music coasts close to cinematic sentimentality
(Nino Rota). Head makes cleverly affecting use of the guitar
sonority of the harpsichord in the work’s final bars. Dodgson
is a product of the RCM rather than Head's RAM. His wife
is Jane Clark the harpsichordist. Dodgson's instrument is the
French Horn rather than the oboe. His little four-movement suite
was again written for the Barbirolli-Aveling Duo. The guitar
and the neo-classical world of Rodrigo can be heard in the Prelude.
This is followed by the blithe but slightly astringent Ground.
The Canzonet is drawn magnetically to English lyrical
voices like Finzi and Howells but, with Dodgson, there is that
last reserve which somehow magnifies the effect. A skipping
Dance recalls the finale of Malcolm Arnold's gorgeous
first Oboe Concerto.
Maconchy had something of a mission with the oboe. There's the
1932 Oboe Quintet which was a prize-winner in the Daily Telegraph
chamber music competition of that year. This was recorded on 78s
by Helen Gaskell and has recently been reissued on Dutton (see
It is heard on Oboe Classics CC2009 'An English Renaissance' (see
The Oboe Quartet dating from circa 1972 is on the Oboe Classics
collection of Janet Craxton radio recordings on CC2011 (see review).
These little Bagatelles
were again composed specifically for the Barbirolli/Aveling
Duo and for the same Purcell Room concert where all three were
premiered in October 1972. They are not avant-garde in the sense
that Elizabeth Lutyens' Driving Out the Death is; to
be heard on that indispensable Janet Craxton collection with
other oboe chamber works by Berkeley, Stoker, Routh and Maconchy
CC2011. These are bagatelles only in the sense that they are
short: between two minutes and three minutes twenty five seconds.
The first is deliberate and pugnacious, the second probing,
chilly-dank and even Gothic though it relaxes for a melancholy
reveille at 1:07 and the final panel is an angular hop-skipping dance.
The idiom has more to do with Bartók than her teacher Vaughan
Williams. This strong sense of self-identity was apparent from
the 1932 Oboe Quintet onwards and across her great cycle of
string quartets (now on Regis).
The 1972 works, quite
naturally, carry the mark of passing time and reflect trace
elements of the avant-gardiste 1960s and 1970s. Gordon Jacob's
lovely 1963 work shows no such inclination. It too was written
for the Barbirolli-Aveling Duo. His Sonatina carols the English
muse. It was written at the end of a sustained high noon for
his works from the 1920s to the end of the 1950s. The 1960s
pushed his name off broadcast schedules and concert programmes.
He simply adapted and shifted his production to writing music
for amateurs, children and students. His long list of works
include two concertos for oboe and strings the first of which
was written for Lady Barbirolli. There are also Seven Bagatelles,
Ten Little Studies and a Rhapsody for cor anglais
and strings. The adagio of the Sonatina sings of sun-soaked
summers and yellow corn fields, the heat-haze and the buzzing
of insects. The allegro giocoso dances lightly on its
toes. Its swoops and dives again recall Malcolm Arnold's First
Oboe Concerto. The lento alla sarabanda reminded me strongly
of Thomas Wilson's affecting music for the BBC Scotland
TV’s Lewis Grassic Gibbon adaptation: Cloud Howe - nursing
the desolate and the lonely. The final allegro molto vivace
is a romp for both players which at 00.40 relaxes into another
of those dazzling summer pasture songs before finding its feet
for that music-hall romp of a home-run. The piece ends with
a modest throwaway gesture that is both touching and lyrically
The notes are typically
full and are written from the inside by Ifeka and May.
No enthusiast of the
oboe can afford to be without this collection. This is music-making
of the highest order.