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CD: Crotchet


William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Sonata for oboe and piano (1934) [19:15]
Johann Wenzel KALLIWODA (1801-1866)
Morceau de Salon
Op. 228 [12:20]
Henri DUTILLEUX (b.1916)
Sonata for oboe and piano (1947) [13:22]
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
(1955) [3:47]
Antonio PASCULLI (1842-1924)
Gran Concerto
(c.1860) [20:46]
Katsuya Watanabe (oboe); David Johnson (piano)
rec. 6-8 February 2008 Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin. DDD
H─NSSLER PROFIL PH08038 [69:31]
Experience Classicsonline

The bottom line is that I thoroughly enjoyed the music and the playing on this CD but I was very disappointed by the presentation. Let me explain. As a listener and a reviewer I do not feel that I should be obliged to trawl through dictionaries and surf the ‘web’ to find out basic information about the featured composers and their music. In this CD virtually no background information is provided on these composers –in spite of two of them being virtually unknown and the other three not being exactly household names. Furthermore the ‘descriptive’ notes on the pieces are uneven. There is practically no comment on the Alwyn or the Dutilleux, yet these are the two oboe ‘masterpieces’ on this CD.
Now it could be argued that the innocent ear is a great strategy. Do I really need to know that Pasculli was born in Palermo or that Rota was Milanese? Is it essential that I know Dutilleux is still alive? Or that William Alywn destroyed much of his pre-war music? I think it does matter. At least it gives some referential markers for judging a given piece of music. Three of these works were unknown quantities to me. I would have liked something to go on: something to help me form an educated opinion.
One last criticism - I understood that the Alwyn Sonata was first played in 1934 and not written ‘about 1955’ as the programme notes suggest!
The Alwyn Oboe Sonata was first played at a Royal Academy of Music concert in 1934 by Helen and Lillian Gaskell. The work was well received with the Times reviewer suggesting that it was a “‘true sonata’ that gave each instrument a share in the progress of the music.” Apparently, it was so popular in the late nineteen-thirties that it was included in the BBC Radio Programme – Your Choice for the Week!

The work is written in three unbalanced movements – the first being as long as the last two put together. The first few bars provide most of the material for the remainder of the opening movement. This is signed 'moderato e grazioso’ yet much of the music is actually slow and reflective – perhaps a little untypical for first movement form. It would be disingenuous to talk about ‘cow pats and fences’ – but this movement is pretty close to ‘pastoral imagery’. And there is a definite French feel to this well wrought music that makes it just that little bit more sophisticated than a meditation on the fields around Northampton. Yet there is nothing here to disturb the listener’s peace of mind on a hot summer’s evening. The second movement is a choral-like ‘andantino’ which continues the mood of the last pages of the ‘moderato’. It is truly lovely music that explores a wide-ranging and lyrical tune. Of course the temper of the music changes and slightly more intense feelings inform the proceedings. Yet the sheer beauty of this movement is never compromised. The allegro is much livelier than most of what has gone before: it is actually a ‘pastiche’ waltz. However the character of the movement changes towards the end when the soloist indulges in a reflective coda. This is a fine work by one of Britain’s great composers. Yet it is fair to say that few of the ‘typical’ Alwyn fingerprints are found in these pages.
Unfortunately there is virtually nothing in the sleeve-notes about Henri Dutilleux and his Oboe Sonata (1947). Yet this work is regarded as one of the masterworks for the instrument. Dutilleux is a composer who is actually quite hard to pin down, stylistically. He has used serialism in some of his compositions but has never become a slave to its methods. He was seriously influenced by Debussy and Ravel. Additionally, it is not hard to hear Stravinsky and Bartˇk in much of his music. And there are echoes of ‘Les Six’ - however it is well known that in spite of being friends with at least three of the group he declined to become the Seventh! It is fair to say that Dutilleux denies belonging to any particular school. He wrote this Sonata just after the Second World War and it was part of the composer’s emergence onto the Paris scene. The work is actually quite short and is in three contrasting movements. It is clear that there is a hiatus or at least a tension between the pensive opening ‘aria’ and the almost jaunty ‘final.’ I have noted before that the middle movement, the ‘scherzo’ is the heart of the piece. This is split into two sections – with complex fast music and an introspective ‘trio’ section. The ‘scherzo’ music is not repeated before the start of the last movement. There has been discussion about the nature of the ‘finale’ – is this ‘light’ music or something more ironic. It has been seen as being a “gallivant around the boulevards of Paris”. However, the truth is more prosaic. This is simply an optimistic conclusion to a work that opened with dark thoughts. Strangely the scherzo is an epitome of the entire Sonata.
I am totally dependent on the sleeve-notes for information about the Bohemian composer Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda. I have found out that he was born in Prague in 1801 and died in 1866. Furthermore he wrote a number of large-scale works including symphonies. He was obviously seriously prolific as this piece was his Op. 228. However I have no idea when it was composed. Apparently when Kalliwoda penned his Morceau he was not thinking of the ‘middle class salon culture’ but good old proletarian music-making: Cousin Winifred and Uncle Eustace gathered round the piano after Matins on a Sunday afternoon type of thing … The work allows the soloist to express both lyrical melodies and complex ‘stretto’ passages. The piece itself is in ternary form with a central set of variations. If I was looking for some musical references I guess that it would be Liszt or Paganini and quite often Sir Arthur Sullivan. My only gripe would be that for a ‘morceau’ it is a little long at just over twelve minutes - although the sheer attractiveness of the main melody mitigates this to some extent.
The Elegia (1955) by Nino Rota is one of those pieces that are absolutely timeless: every note is perfectly stated; every phrase is faultless. The programme notes suggest a connection with the Syrinx myth that was musically perpetuated by Claude Debussy. But although there is certainly much truth in this comparison, the two composers’ interpretations of this myth are totally discrete. What is fascinating about this present piece is the fact that it is a million miles away from being film music - yet could easily be used in film. Enigmatic is the only possible description – yet quite beautiful.
The only thing that I know about Antonio Pasculli, apart from the fact that he was born in Palermo in Sicily, is that he was dubbed the ‘Paganini of the oboe’. The present piece shows off both the composer’s skill and the player’s technique to great effect. The complete title of the work is Gran Concerto su temi dall’opera ‘I Vespri sicilani’ di Verdi. The piece is a subtle set of variations that explores virtually every possible characteristic of the oboe. The programme notes suggest that after “150 years, they are still among the most difficult passages ever written for the instrument.” They are certainly beautifully and competently performed on this disc.
The playing is superb and the sound quality excellent. It is a disc that most oboe enthusiasts would want to add to their collections. The three twentieth-century works are essential and the two earlier pieces are well worth the listening effort. But perhaps the revelation for me was the Elegia by Nino Rota: a truly gorgeous work that defies criticism.
John France


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