I must confess that
I intended to concentrate on the ‘modern’ works on this CD.
Do not get me wrong – I love the music of J.S. Bach – but, if
I am honest I feel more at home with the masters of the English
Renaissance. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who had already
bought this CD. She was adamant that I approach the works as
presented and enjoy the impression of the ‘journey.’ For her,
if anything the Bach would have had the edge from a composer’s
point of view, but she insisted that this was, to use a ’sixties
term, rather like Sergeant Pepper – a concept album.
It is important to listen to this CD in sequence: the
eighteenth century pieces most certainly balance and contrast
with the modern. This is best exemplified between the Elizabeth
Maconchy Bagatelles and the following Bach Sonata
in G minor. The effect is stunning.
The raison d’être
of this CD is to showcase the oboe within the context of the
swing of its history. It is no great secret that the oboe had
a somewhat chequered career over the years. Everyone knows the
great concertos and sonatas that were written in the eighteenth
century by the likes of Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann. The instrument
was often used by the Bach tribe and J.S.B. in particular. Yet
in the nineteenth century the oboe and its relations were relegated
to the orchestra pit. It was not until the twentieth century
that composers and performers rediscovered the charm and agility
of this instrument. We need only think of Vaughan Williams’
Oboe Concerto as epitomising its sound-world – certainly
in Great Britain.
Janet Craxton and
Leon Goossens encouraged composers to write new works for their
instrument. Yet oboe enthusiasts also owe a huge debt to Evelyn
Rothwell who did so much to raise awareness of the instrument
and its repertoire. Rothwell, when playing baroque pieces was
typically accompanied on the harpsichord by Valda Aveling. This
led to a number of twentieth century British composers being
commissioned to write works for the duo.
The touchstone for
the present programme is the three Bach pieces – one each for
oboe, cor anglais and oboe d’amore. It is not necessary to give
an analysis of these works here – save to point out that there
are questions of authorship over BWV 1027 and 1028. Yet the
beauty and vitality of these works render authenticity almost,
but not quite, irrelevant. These are well played and often quite
To my ear the most
successful piece – apart from J.S.B. of course, is the Sonatina
for Oboe and Harpsichord (1963) by Gordon Jacob. For far
too long Jacob’s music has been largely ignored, yet recently
we have been presented with his two symphonies, and a number
of chamber works. Older listeners will recall Iris Loveridge’s
Lyrita recording of his Piano Sonata. There is no doubt that
he was an accomplished composer who was pretty well consistent
in producing works of quality, invention and downright musical
In many ways the
present work epitomises Jacob’s art. This work cannot be seen
as pastiche, neither can it be regarded as a neo-baroque exercise
designed to complement works by Telemann et al. Nor is this
an academic exercise. The Sonatina is a work that is
wholly in the 20th century yet has a timelessness
that is rare in works from any era or from even the greatest
of composers. In this work we find sadness, fun, introspection
and the opposites. This is not a simple piece; in fact it is
quite involved and uses a fairly chromatic language, yet there
is nothing difficult here. It is the piece I most wanted to
hear: I am not disappointed.
I am normally a
great enthusiast of Elizabeth Maconchy’s music, however I cannot
honestly state that I was moved by these Three Bagatelles.
Of course they are beautifully constructed and full of interest
and vitality and are surely grateful to the players. However,
I cannot imagine a piece further removed from the ethos of her
teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Yet I guess that they are an
important contribution to the literature of the oboe and as
such it is good that they receive what I imagine is their first
Suite in D (1972) is quite definitely derivative – but
in an attractive and fascinating way. It could be argued that
the work is pastiche – with the suite’s movements being given
‘typical’ titles like Prelude and Ground. Yet it is this tension
between old and new that makes it a satisfactory work. Quite
obviously Dodgson has absorbed the techniques and mannerisms
of the Baroque composers without losing his distinctive voice
which perhaps owes more to Stravinsky than to Vivaldi!
Perhaps the most
satisfying piece for me is the Siciliana by Michael Head.
Of course most of Head’s compositions were for voice and piano,
but a few instrumental pieces-including three for oboe and piano
- have survived. Interestingly, he also wrote a piano concerto!
The present work is extremely short, but quite exquisite. Of
course, it is an Italian dance, but the music is entirely English.
Preconceptions and musical conditioning will bring to mind an
England far removed from today – yet it did not exist in Head’s
day either. In fact this piece is timeless and placeless. Perfect
– but I would that it were longer!
for this CD is seriously impressive. So many recording companies
supply minimalist background for their products. However, Jeremy
Polmear at Oboe Classics provides, what in my opinion are, near
perfect programme notes. This is a 24-page booklet that includes
an impressive 3500 word essay - given in English and in German.
These notes are written by the performers and are erudite, entertaining
and useful. The quality of the sound is perfect for this kind
of music. I could just shut my eyes and imagine that this was
being presented ‘live’ in my music room.
I will be honest
and admit that I have not heard of Althea Ifeka and Katherine
May before hearing this recording: the Arkiv catalogue does
not show any other recordings by this duo. Yet reading their
brief biographies reveals two performers who are active in the
recital and teaching world. It is surely only a matter of time
before they record more music for the oboe and harpsichord…
I usually suggest
that when a number of works are presented on a disc like this
listeners pick one or two pieces at a time and listen carefully.
Now, for once I suggest a good old-fashioned through-listen.
And then of course you can pick out your favourites. However
by all means pause momentarily between works and read the programme
notes. You will learn an amazing amount!
see also Review
by Rob Barnett