Edwin Roxburgh (b.1937) Antares for oboe and piano (1988) [8:25] Cantilena for oboe and piano (1991) [6:48] Images for oboe and piano (1967) [6:39] Elegy for oboe and ensemble (1982) [12:17] Aulodie for oboe and piano (1977): (Paean [4:09] – Hermes [4:24]
- Ariadne's Thread [3:44]) Shadow Play for two oboes and cor anglais (1984)
[9:23] Silent Strings for oboe and piano (2005) [3:39]
(oboe); Sally Mays (piano); Xiaodi Liu (oboe); Philip Haworth
RNCM ensemble/Edwin Roxburgh
rec. Trinity College of Music, London, 2006 (oboe and piano
tracks); Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 2008
(ensemble tracks). DDD OBOE
CLASSICS CC2019 [59:51]
There are many corners of the musical world that both listeners
and reviewers never quite reach. For example, I know virtually
no music by Scarlatti, Stockhausen and Sousa. This is not
a value judgement - the odd bits and pieces I have heard
from these varied composers I have usually enjoyed – even
if I have not understood them. I may get around to knowing
their music or I may not. Only time will tell. What does
annoy me, though, are people who say, “What! You do not
know the Helicopter String Quartet, the Tanze
Luzefa or Samstag”, with a superior look on
their faces. I feel like saying to them “When was the last
time you listened to Parry’s Shulbrede Tunes?”
Roxburgh is a case in point. He is a name to me: I may
have heard the odd piece on the radio but I have never
sat down, brain in gear and consciously listened to any
of his works. The ‘news on the street’ probably made it
clear to me that I would not normally choose to seek out
his music. But contrary-wise I have never tried to avoid
it. So it was with some interest and not a little trepidation
that I received this disc of Roxburgh’s oboe music.
For a reviewer who has a lot to review, the first hearing has
to be persuasive. I really cannot afford the time to revisit
a work or series of pieces umpteen times. There is no difficulty
listening to a few movements or ‘difficult’ passages again.
So, there was really a bit of problem as to how to review
this CD – bearing in mind that this is a new composer and
all new music - at least to me. I could not just put it
on the ‘turntable’ and through-play in the background,
and then go straight to the computer and type up my review.
This is not Engelbert Humperdink who sounds quite good
over a spaghetti carbonara and a glass of pinot grigio.
This music manifestly needs a bit of thought and a wee
bit of concentration. So, I elected for two play-throughs – the
first literally that – end to end. This allowed the music
to flow over me – to go over my head. Secondly, I decided
to take each work in bite-sized chunks over a few days
as I would normally do with a review.
The result of this was two-fold. Firstly I found that I actually quite
enjoyed the music at first hearing. I realised that much
(not all) of it was quite accessible, in spite of its manifestly ‘modern’ sound-world.
A lot of the oboe performance techniques that Roxburgh
uses are very complex. As a teenager I had heard Heinz
Holliger play a variety of double-stopping, glissandi and
tonguings - but really that was hardly preparation for
some of the sounds emanating from my hi-fi speakers. It
was a challenge.
The pieces on this CD are not arranged in any particular chronological
order. However the earliest work, Images, goes ‘way
back’ to 1967 – to the time of Sgt. Pepper. The programme
notes point out that the oboe uses only traditional methods
of sound production. However, the piano part uses a variety
of more ‘advanced’ skills including playing inside the
instrument. I did enjoy this piece and it certainly lives
up to its title of Images. The music ranges from
the ecstatic to the sinister – over a seven minute time
Antares was commissioned by Nicholas Daniel
to celebrate the 90th birthday of the great Leon Goossens. The
background to the piece is astrological – the oboist’s
birthday apparently fell at the same moment at which the
bright star Antares is most prominent. This work is well-balanced
between the soloist and the pianist. Once again the composer
writes many magical passages but then seems to spoil them
with ‘sound effects’ that add little to the argument of
The composer Adrian Cruft is commemorated in the most approachable
piece on this CD, Cantilena. Once again written
for oboe and piano, it develops in a fairly relaxed manner.
The programme notes suggest that this music is ‘hypnotic’ – and
I guess that this is a good description. Some of the music
is quite delicate, almost filigree in texture. It is a
good place to begin an exploration of Roxburgh’s music.
The piece was borne out of ethical discussions that Roxburgh
had had with Cruft – in the aftermath of the First Gulf
Elegy was written in 1982 – In Memory
of Janet Craxton. I am not sure what Miss Craxton’s view
of the work would have been, as she died the previous year.
Yet somehow I feel that she may not have been impressed
with some of the strange sounds from the oboe – however,
she would have enjoyed the ‘calm and serene’ coda. The
work is scored for the oboe and a variety of soloists.
There are some very beautiful moments in this work, but
on the whole I did not find it particularly uplifting.
Patric Standford writes that the three movements
of Aulodie “are a glimpse into an amiable side of
the Roxburgh personality”. The three ‘movements’ were written
to celebrate Leon Goossens’ 75th birthday in
1976. The opening Paean is seen as an ancient hymn
of praise often associated with the god Apollo: it is meant
to evoke Goossens’ ‘rubato phrasing’. Hermes was
seen to be the god of commerce, invention and cunning and
no doubt plays to the oboist’s brilliance of style. And
lastly, Ariadne is invoked to suggest the oboist’s
influence on subsequent performers. Roxburgh uses an oboe
d’amore in this movement melodically to symbolise the thread
that the goddess used to escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth. I
can concede to Standford that the intention of this work
is genial – but whether the end result is quite so relaxed
is surely a matter of opinion.
Play was written in 1984
and is perhaps the most outré of all these works. It
is composed for two oboes and a cor anglais. Roxburgh
makes a massive use of multiphonics in this piece, often
creating the effect of a wind band rather than just the
three soloists. It is a unique aural experience where,
to quote the composer, “a multiphonic sound on an oboe
is made up of a complex relationship of multiple harmonics.
The prominent tones make up a distinctive chord, but
they are shrouded by shadows of less audible harmonics
covering a wide range of frequencies. These shadows are
reminiscent of shadow-play, in which fleeting images
create the illusion of things real.” It is a piece that
sounds clever, but I wonder just how much it moves the
The latest piece on this CD is Silent Strings. To my mind this
is the least effective of the works. Once again the composer
has decided to make ‘powerful statements’ about the invasion
of Iraq - the Second Gulf War. One wonders if his music
is also critical of the ‘the other side’ and their atrocities
or if his aural condemnation is reserved solely for the
The CD booklet suggests that the music opens with programmatic (for
me, unhelpful) descriptions of ‘sirens and munitions fire’.
However the main point of this work is to suggest, as the
composer writes, a “beautiful 4,500 year-old lyra from
Ur, an irreplaceable work of art.” It is now destroyed.
“No such poetry is left for the Mesopotamian lyra…
…its strings are silent.”
I suggest that this CD is approached in chunks. Please do not listen
to this end to end – unless you wish to be ‘dazed and confused’ as
Led Zeppelin once fancied. An hour of exotic oboe sounds
can be a little daunting. It is best to take each piece
separately, read the learned programme notes and enjoy – or
I must point out that I am not sure whether I feel that such an ‘advanced’ exploration
of an instrument’s resources is really that helpful. It
might be fun or interesting or even adventurous. It may
be pushing the boundaries for its own sake – or even just
plain showing off. Yet I have to admit that the sounds
are often fascinating and impressive – even if they do
not move me in quite the same way that more conventional
The bottom line is that this music is rather like Marmite – you will
either love it or loathe it. Finally, I guess that repeated
hearing may lead to a greater understanding and affinity
with Roxburgh’s musical language. Whether one is prepared
to invest this time will be up to the listener.
There is no doubt that the playing is superb and that the sound quality
of the CD lends itself to the atmosphere of this music.
It is self-evident that the skill of oboist Paul Goodey
and of pianist Sally Mays and the other performers is phenomenal.
And the programme notes are fulsome. In fact, they comprise
a 6000 word essay in a 24 page booklet. Would that all
CDs had such supporting documentation.
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John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny Editor in Chief
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