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British Music for Oboe and Strings
John JOUBERT (b.1927)
Concerto for Oboe and Strings Op. 160 [19.45]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Phantasy for oboe, violin, viola and cello Op. 2
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Concerto for oboe and strings Op. 23 [21.13]
Cecilia McDOWALL (b.1951)
Y Deryn Pur
(The Gentle Dove) for oboe, violin, viola and cello (2007) [5.48]
John McCABE (b.1939)
Concerto for oboe and orchestra (1995) [15.58]
Jinny Shaw (oboe)
Orchestra Nova/George Vass
Sara Trickey (violin); Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola); Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
rec. St. Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, 22-23 November 2011
GUILD GMCD 7383 [77.24] 

The enterprising Guild label has come up with another fascinating and generously filled disc with this recording of British Oboe Concertos. You may consider this particular genre quite intimate and more suited to the baroque period but these diverse works add wonderfully to the repertoire and should help open up new horizons for concert promoters. The disc also showcases some superb young performers.
The disc opens with John Joubert’s Concerto of 2006. His concertos are little known and unrecorded. There’s the Violin Concerto Op. 13 of 1954, written when he was just starting out on his professional life. Then came the Piano Concerto of 1958. In 1974 he wrote the Bassoon Concerto and Threnos for harpsichord and strings if that counts. To my knowledge there has been nothing else since.
So this Oboe Concerto is his first concerto for well over forty years and it was certainly worth the wait. In three movements, it opens with an agitated Allegro moderato where one notices the typical Joubert fingerprints: certain rhythmic patterns, imitative writing and sequences all within in a strongly authoritative movement. The Scherzo, marked Presto, comes next, scurrying and excitable. The finale is a Poco Lento, which uses a 17-bar ground bass. He has used the passacaglia form before, for example in the third movement of his 2nd Piano Sonata Op 71. There’s also an Organ Passacaglia and Fugue Op 35. It’s the longest movement in both the sonata and the concerto. Paul Conway’s comment that the concerto is of a major stature and “plainly the product of accumulated wisdom” seems to hit the target exactly. It is emotionally cohesive and deeply impressive. It’s good also that the booklet quotes the composer’s own succinct and valuable analysis of the work.
To move to the last work on the disc, we have the Concerto for Oboe byJohn McCabe. He it was that recorded Joubert’s piano music in the 1970s, a disc now available on Somm (060-2). The two have been friends and colleagues for many years. The Concerto is an elusive yet atmospheric work couched in one movement but falling into four sections. There’s a Lento in which much of the material can be heard. Then follows an Allegretto Scherzando, clearly inspired, as the composer admits in the notes quoted from the initial performance for the 1995 the Isle of Wight Festival, by bird flight. Next there is an Allegretto which slips effortlessly back to the opening Largo - so an arch shape in many ways which is satisfying and yet leaves you with a few questions unanswered which is probably a good thing. Especially attractive is the addition of harp and timpani. There are episodes for just the two of them, or for just oboe and timpani.
Immediately following the Joubert comes a piece which I’m ashamed to say was new to me: Britten’s Phantasy Op. 2, a student work. It’s apt also that it follows the Joubert because he has been a life-long admirer of Britten. After hearing the Phantasy, Felix Weingartner, according to Robert Matthew-Walker’s excellent notes, declared that the young Britten was a genius. From the point of view of construction and originality of ideas it seems to me that he was quite right. There is also homage to Mozart whom Britten venerated in that the latter’s Oboe Quartet is in a similar sort of arch form to that which Britten utilises. There is even the employment of the oboe 3/4 phrasing against the strings’ 4/4 in the central ‘sempre piu agitato’ section. The material is also strikingly unusual, even for the young Britten: especially its march-like opening with something sounding like a regular Bartókian pizzicato.
Cecilia McDowall was inspired by the Welsh Border landscape in her Presteigne Festival commission, The Gentle Dove. It’s based on the Welsh folk song Y Deryn Pur. The landscape in question is very near to my Herefordshire home and I can easily relate to it. This is a calming and mellifluous creation; just a miniature but a lovely and perfectly formed one.
The longest work on the CD is by Kenneth Leighton who died tragically young by modern standards. Everything that emerged from his pen is to my mind consistently outstanding. Surely he is still wildly underrated. His Concerto for oboe and strings dates from 1951, and would have appeared rather ’cowpat’ at the time had it been performed. In fact it was almost a scandalous fifty years, in 2001 before it was heard at a Three Choirs’ Concert. It is in three movements. In the first two the oboe sings and in the spiky Scherzando finale it dances, modally and chromatically but always retaining both beauty and interest. Movements 1 and 2, although marked Molto moderato ma con moto and Lento molto respectively, in this performance feel a little too similar in tempo. The con moto of movement 1 seems to have been slightly overlooked.
Otherwise the performances by the London-based Orchestra Nova under George Vass are exemplary and sensitive throughout to the disparate styles represented. Jinny Shaw proves herself to be a very fine soloist with a beautifully rich tone which balances perfectly with whatever combination is thrown at her. The recorded balance likewise is excellent and the acoustic of the early 20th century church in Kentish Town is ideal. How did they manage to avoid extraneous traffic noise in this busy part of London?
Gary Higginson

Britten Phantasy - review index & discography