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CD: Crotchet

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]
Paul Goodey (oboe); Sally Mays (piano); Xiaodi Liu (oboe); Philip Haworth (cor anglais)
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]
Experience Classicsonline

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?”

Edwin 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 span.
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 music.
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 War (1991).
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.

Shadow 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 listener.

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 Alliance?
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 otherwise.
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 oboe-playing does.
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.
John France


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