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Johann Baptist WANHAL (1739 - 1813)
Oboe Quartet in C major, Op. 7 No. 6 [15:16]
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860 - 1909)
Tango in D. Op.165 No.2 [2:44]
Franz Vincent KROMMER (1759 - 1831)
Oboe Quartet in F major P IX:21 [14:19]
Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Oboe Quartet op.61 [12:42]
Ferrer FERRAN (b. 1966)
Horus: Concertino para Oboe y Trío de Cuerdas [21:08]
Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860 - 1909)
Córdoba. Op.232 No.4 [5:35]
Cuarteto Emispherio (Sarah Roper (oboe); Vladimir Dmitrienko (violin), Jerome Ireland (violin); Gretchen Talbot (cello))
rec. 13-15 March 2015, Sputnik Recording Studios, Seville. DDD
OBOE CLASSICS CC2030 [61:44]

The combination of the oboe with violin, viola and cello has yielded one clear master-work (Mozart’s Quartet K370), and a number of interesting and rewarding lesser works, including the nineteen year old Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet and a set of six quartets for either flute or oboe and strings by Stamitz (Op. 8). The twentieth century saw the composition of a number of interesting oboe quartets by British composers, in addition to Britten’s work, such as Moeran’s Fantasy Quartet (1946), Lennox Berkeley’s Quartet for Oboe and String Trio (1967), Nicola LeFanu’s Variations for Oboe Quartet (19680, Elisabeth Lutyens' Driving Out the Death (1971), Elizabeth Maconchy’s Oboe Quartet (1972) and Francis Routh’s Oboe Quartet (1977). Performances of many of these are available on Oboe Classics CC2011. Yet it remains largely true that the oboe quartet is underused by composers and, when it has been used the results have generally stayed rather too little known or under-appreciated. This new CD (on the specialist label Oboe Classics) offers some worthwhile exemplars of the form, many of which will, I suspect, be new to most listeners. Certainly I was familiar only with the Quartet by Vanhal — though I was aware of that by Arnold, I had somehow failed to hear it previously — prior to listening to the Cuarteto Emispherio. Some of the music they play is in arrangements, but the works by Vanhal, Krommer, Ferran and Arnold were written for oboe quartet.

The opening Allegro of the quartet by Vanhal has more than a little (restrained) passion to it, while being entirely Classical in form, while the following Andante is elegant and charming, with a richer emotional intensity in the minor key variation of the cantabile theme first stated in the major. The Menuetto and Trio might almost be by Haydn although it doesn’t quite have that master’s quiet wit. The most memorable of the four movements — at least it is the one of which I had the clearest memory from previous hearings of this quartet — is the closing Presto, which is full of energy and drama. Vanhal may not quite be a composer of the first rank, but he is rarely dull and never less than fully competent and intelligent.

Krommer’s three movement quartet is by no means a lost masterpiece, but is well worthy of rediscovery. It makes for thoroughly pleasant listening, not least in the conversation between violin and oboe in the opening Allegro. The ensuing Menuetto has a quintessentially Viennese grace and the closing Rondo has a folk-like quality and in its harmonic richness sometimes anticipates a more Romantic manner. We ought to hear more of Krommer.

The Oboe Quartet by Malcolm Arnold — I can’t think how I missed hearing the work until now — is characteristically intelligent and imaginative, even if it isn’t one of the composer’s more ‘profound’ works. Nor is it any kind of light music, even if it possesses several fine tunes, notably in the closing Vivace and the lovely central Allegretto, where a theme initially suggested by the strings is taken over by the oboe and developed and handled with great subtlety. In this Andante one is reminded of the epithet ‘Theocritan’ which Walter Wilson Cobbett (he of Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music) applied to the oboe when, as long ago as 1915, he wrote of how “the lovely Theocritan strains of the oboe” were too rarely heard in chamber music. The allusion to the (imagined) pipe music of Arcadian shepherds doesn’t do justice to all that the oboe can do, but it captures very well the kind of inherent pastoralism which Arnold’s Allegretto brings out so well.

There is little that is Theocritan or Arcadian in the sound-world of Ferrer Ferran’s Horus. Well known in Spain both as a conductor and a composer, among Ferran’s earlier compositions (it was published in 2002) is a fine work for the oboe: his El Bosque Mágico – Concierto para oboe y banda (The Magic Forest – concerto for oboe and wind band). The titles of that very colourful work’s three movements (‘The Elves’, ‘The Fairies’, and ‘The Gnomes’) suggest that responsiveness to the supernatural which is also apparent in his later workm Horus; it was written in 2007. The Egyptian God of light and the sky, as well as of war, Horus was most often represented as a great falcon. According to the very generous booklet which comes with this CD, the Egyptian Book of the Dead declares that “Horus is a protector. Horus is a father. Horus is a friend”. The same text tells its readers that Horus “governs Egypt, and the gods work for him. He is a source of life for millions. His people live through his eye” Horus’ two eyes, of unequal brightness, were the sun and the moon. There is a ceremonial quality to the opening of the first movement of Horus, and some of Ferran’s writing for the oboe has a decidedly middle-eastern quality. A “furioso” section explores resources in the oboe which are by no means merely ‘Theocritan’, but the writing is always of a kind unlikely to disturb listeners averse to what they think of as typically ‘contemporary’. The second movement, marked Larghetto, starts with a long slow melodic line and its first section ends with a sardana, a Catalan round dance. There is more agitated music in the middle section of the movement, which is in 6/8 and in which the strings rather ‘steal’ the position of prominence from the oboe. The third section of this second movement sees the return of the theme from the opening of the movement. In the final Presto a slightly aggressive opening gives way to music of a certain stateliness, before echoes of the earlier ‘furioso’ music return and drive the work on to its conclusion. Horus traverses quite a wide range of emotions and in doing so shows, if demonstration is really needed, just how powerful and human a voice the oboe can have. Overall a fine piece which deserves to be heard widely.

The two arrangements of piano pieces by Albèniz work quite delightfully. Although the booklet for this CD provides a great deal of information, I can’t anywhere find an indication of who is responsible for these fine arrangements. I presume they emanate from within the group itself. In Tango, from the suite España, Sarah Roper’s oboe creates some appropriately sinuous melodic lines and the strings are eloquently rhythmical. Where ‘Córdoba’ is concerned — from the collection Chants d’Espagne — I am, I confess, a biased judge. Of all the cities I have ever visited in Europe the Andalusian city of Cordoba seems to me the most fascinating, both for what is there to be seen now and for its remarkable cultural history. I am a ready audience for anything – painting, poem or musical work - which evokes the city, as this certainly does. In doing so, it makes a gorgeous ending to a very enjoyable CD.
Glyn Pursglove



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