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From Leipzig to London - Duo Sonatas from the 18th and 20th Centuries
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Sonatina for oboe and harpsichord (1963) [9:30]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata in D for oboe d'amore and harpsichord BMV 1028 [14:35]
Stephen DODGSON (b. 1924)
Suite in D for oboe and harpsichord (1972) [8:41]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata in G for cor anglais and harpsichord BWV 1027 [13:11]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
Three Bagatelles for oboe and harpsichord (1972) [8:29]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata in G minor for oboe and harpsichord BWV 1020 [9:19]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976)
Siciliana for oboe and harpsichord (1972) [5:50]
Althea Ifeka (oboe, oboe d'amore, cor anglais) Katharine May (harpsichord)
rec. Church of St Edward the Confessor, Mottingham, London, 7-9 July 2005. DDD
OBOE CLASSICS CC2013 [69:44]


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 moving.

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 interest.

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 recorded performance.

Stephen Dodgson’s 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!

The documentation 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!

John France

see also Review by Rob Barnett

 

 

 

 


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