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English Music For Oboe
Variations for Oboe and Cello ‘Little Epiphany’ [14:00]
Stephen DODGSON (1924-2013)
Quartet for Oboe and String Trio [15:58]
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934)
Four Duos for Oboe and Cello [9:25]
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Seven Bagatelles for Solo Oboe [7:33]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Oboe Sonata* [20:32]
Sarah Francis (oboe), Peter Dickinson (piano), Tagore String Trio, Rohan de Saram (cello)
rec. 1985*/2014, St. Silas Church, Kentish Town; St. Barnabas Church, East Finchley *

Two years ago Heritage issued a superb 4 CD set of Baroque oboe concertos by Sarah Francis (HTGCD400) and they now follow it up with a recording of English music for oboe which has a personal association for the soloist. Four of the works included were written for Sarah Francis by leading 20th century English composers: Gordon Crosse, Stephen Dodgson, Peter Dickinson and Gordon Jacob. The Crosse, Dodgson and Dickinson works receive their world premiere recordings. The coupling is the Howells Oboe Sonata, written for Leon Goossens. Sarah was the first oboist to perform and record the work and that premiere recording appears here under licence from Hyperion.

Sarah Francis started her career as principal oboe in the BBC Welsh Orchestra. She has broadcast regularly for the BBC since the age of 19 in recitals and concerto performances, including the Proms where she premiered Ariadne, the concerto composed for her by Gordon Crosse. She is a wonderful player and this disc captures her art to perfection. It is to the huge credit of Heritage that we are offered these unique recordings of unusual music, impeccably played.

Gordon Crosse’s Little Epiphany uses the same two themes and structure as his orchestral Epiphany Variations. There is an opening theme, a set of eight variations and then a closing theme. The piece is a 14 minute conversation between cello and oboe and this conversation often becomes heated and argumentative before cooling off. It’s the inspired cello writing that makes the music really interesting. Crosse uses harmonics, pizzicato effects and a full range of string tone and dynamics. Rohan de Saram matches the oboe beautifully. This is quite a discovery.

Stephen Dodgson’s Oboe Quartet is in three movements, the first of which is an antique-sounding Prelude. The lively and playful Scherzo is neo-classical in style and this is followed by a substantial Allegretto that constitutes around half the length of the quartet’s time-span. The unaccompanied oboe states an opening theme and this is followed by five variations and a strong climax. The overall impression of the work is that it is structurally sound, full of strong rhythmic ideas and free-flowing in nature.

Peter Dickinson’s Four Duos were composed in 1932. Three of the short movements, in homage to Charles Ives, use a twelve-tone row taken from the composer's 1905 Three-Page Sonata. Cello and oboe are equal partners in this quirky but engagingly humorous music.

The unaccompanied Bagatelles by Gordon Jacob are successful in illustrating the composer’s professionalism and high level of craftsmanship. The seven short movements are full of contrast and delight. Ms Francis plays them with grace, charm and effortless virtuosity.

Finally we have the Herbert Howells Oboe Sonata. This is the most substantial item on the disc, running for over twenty minutes. The opening of the first movement Placido, teneramente, ma con moto is typical of the English pastoral style with its beautiful flowing tune. The ensuing Lento gives the oboist a further opportunity to present another song-like melody. This really is English music through and through. The Scherzando leads into an impressive oboe cadenza and the Sonata finishes with an Epilogue that touchingly fades away. Written for Leon Goossens in 1942 the work apparently didn’t take his fancy. I don’t know why because it’s inventive and expertly written with good tunes and plenty of contrast. I liked it very much. It brings the disc to a satisfying conclusion.

The recording quality is first class throughout but the Howells, sourced from Hyperion, has a different acoustic to the rest of the recital. This is an observation rather than a criticism. I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the playing. Sarah Francis and her colleagues are just magnificent.
John Whitmore



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