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Better Angels
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Oboe Concerto in D major (1945) [27:02]
Samuel BARBER (1910-81)
Canzonetta Op.48 posth. [7:22]
Summer Music Op.31 (1956) [12:32]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Mládí (Youth) JW VII/10 (1924) [18:08]
Richard BLACKFORD (1954-)
The Better Angels of Our Nature [14:44]
Emily Pailthorpe (oboe)
Daniel Pailthorpe (flute); Richard Hosford (clarinet); Julie Price (bassoon; Nicholas Korth (horn); James Burke (bass clarinet)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 10-11 November 2015 (Mládí, Summer Music);  BBC Maida Vale Studios (London, UK), 12-13 January 2015 (Strauss, Barber, The Better Angels of Our Nature)

Better Angels brings together the familiar with that which deserves to be more familiar, alongside the new. Emily Pailthorpe’s prize-winning performance of Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto at the 1989 Fernand Gillet International Oboe Competition saw the then seventeen-year-old oboist being dubbed ‘the Jacqueline du Pré of the oboe’. Pailthorpe’s playing throughout this disc is characterised by a full, appealing sound which modulates seamlessly between soft reticence and poised incisiveness. The phrasing is effortlessly eloquent and accommodates both individuality and naturalness.

The best-known work on the disc is Richard Strauss’s gloriously sunny Oboe Concerto, a work of the composer’s final years which sings with a youthful freshness which belies its war-time origins. In 1945, among a group of American soldiers who visited Strauss at his villa in Garmisch was one John de Lancie, who had been principal oboe with the Pittsburgh Orchestra; Lancie asked Strauss to compose a concerto and despite his initial reluctance, Strauss did. producing this buoyant work which perhaps conveyed his hopes for a peaceful future.

Strauss’s concerto was the work with which Pailthorpe made her concerto debut in 2003 with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the way in which she eases into the first movement melody and sustains the unbroken outpouring of melody throughout the Allegro Moderato suggests that the work is a comfortable fit for her innate musical intelligence. She makes light work of the virtuosity. Conductor Martyn Brabbins’ judicious tempo allows the strings to bubble along exuberantly but also ensures that the orchestral textures are translucent and that the elaborate gestures – which Pailthorpe exchanges so fluently with the excellent BBCSO woodwind – are refined.

In the tutti passages the string tone is full, the rhythms springy; the horns are agile and animated. But, such power and richness is counterbalanced by the solo oboe’s tint of nostalgia – slight elongations and rubatos, the occasional withdrawal to a wistful pianissimo, the lovely intertwining of oboe and clarinet. There is an elegiac touch to the lyricism which tempers the carefree mood. For all its charm and poise, the movement is more reminiscent of early Strauss – the vibrant exchanges between the BBCSO woodwind and the soloist recall the operatic busyness of Rosenkavalier – than of Mozartian Classicism.
Mozart casts a firmer shadow over the Andante, however, where Brabbins conjures thick, reedy textures as bassoons, clarinets and cor anglais converse. Echoes of the first movement’s burbling brooks linger lightly in the strings, but with the entry of the horns, Brabbins moves forward skilfully and impassioned swells take us back to native Strauss territory. Signalled by the oboe’s rhythmic flexibility and the strings’ rhetorical outburst, the probing cadenza is increasingly virtuosic and intense, though there is not a single note or ornament that is not lucid; the strings’ initial accompanying pizzicatos are meticulously placed.

The lively but graceful finale offers some fine flute playing and robust rhythmic articulation from all. Brabbins strives constantly for freshness: the strings are by turns crisp with lots of bite, then indulgently sensuous. Strauss’s complex rhythmic arguments are effortlessly shaped, and the compound time coda flies by with gentle ease. No matter how high the solo oboe line lies, Pailthorpe’s tone exhibits never a hint of strain and such relaxed confidence is equalled by the freedom of the string playing.

Two seldom heard works by Samuel Barber follow. The composer’s final opus, the posthumously published Canzonetta for oboe and strings, was written in 1978 and originally intended as the slow movement of an oboe concerto commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. No other movements were composed and the concerto was left unfinished at the time of Barber's death in 1981. Brabbins is sympathetic to Barber’s trademark nostalgic lyricism. Pailthorpe’s oboe soars and sighs plaintively but warmly through the elongated melodies, always vocal in character. Ongoing movement and diversity of colour in the strings prevents the poignancy from seeping into sentimentality, and the weighty bass line is used to craft a sure structure. A tremolando outburst prompts reflective oboe utterings and deeply expressive, rich-toned dialogue between solo string voices, but the major-key return of the opening material is consoling and the overall effect is tender rather than tragic.

After the superb ensemble-playing of the orchestral woodwind in Strauss’s concerto, it’s a pleasure to hear the BBCSO principals join Pailthorpe for Barber’s Summer Music, a single-movement work for wind quintet which was commissioned in 1953 by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit for the principals of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who gave its premiere in 1956.

The squeeze-box nasality of the introduction has a bluesy languidness from which first the flute then the clarinet burst forth with playfulness, before a ‘slow and indolent’ theme commences, its lazy rhythms and drooping phrases reminiscent of Gershwin’s Summertime. Chattering animation, even agitation at times, follows, peppered with effervescent upward swoops; there is a Stravinskian dryness to the timbre at times, along with a sharp edge to the rhythms. The motifs are held together by the clarinet’s long-breathed sleepy oscillation which lures the other voices into more expansive expressivity, led by the oboe’s exploratory roving, and finally to a sunlit richness and an indulgent mood led by some lovely focused horn playing. This is music that does not allow any one of its many moods to dominate and which has plenty to say.

Mládí (Youth) is another late work. Written by Janáček in 1924 when the composer was 70 years old, it adds a bass clarinet to the five wind voices to form a four-movement sextet which is as spirited as Barber’s quintet and builds on the latter’s playfulness. The six voices balance each other perfectly with James Burke’s resonant bass rumbling complemented by the bright warmth of the horn (Nicholas Korth), and the reediness of the middle-voice textures serving to enhance the luminosity of the flute. The clean recording reveals how deftly the players etch every motif of Janáček’s mosaic of ostinatos.

After a perky Andante, folky wistfulness colours the Moderato but humour is never far away. The high-spirited dancing of the flute brings gleams of light to the Allegro while echoes of Strauss seems to pulse through the horn’s affectionate melody and triumphant rising arpeggios in a final Con moto which romps to a jubilant close.

The last item gives the disc its title. Richard Blackford’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is a fifteen-minute work for oboes and strings which was premiered at the 42nd International Double Reed Society Conference at the University of Redlands in California, in 2013, by Pailthorpe – to whom the work is dedicated – and the Redlands Symphony, conducted by Gordon Hunt.

Blackford is well-known as a film and media composer, with over 200 film scores to his name; but he is also critically acclaimed as a composer of classical works, including four operas and diverse instrumental and chamber compositions. Better Angels is a beguiling blend of melodic lyricism, textural diversity, rhythmic propulsion and formal clarity. It comprises two movements, heard continuously, which are separated by the oboe’s ‘bugle call’, Taps, which is traditionally heard at funerals or played at sunset.

Blackford’s starting points was the plea for reconciliation made by Abraham Lincoln during his first inaugural address on March 4th 1861:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

There is an appealing gentleness about the introduction of Pailthorpe’s bugle-leaps above static strings: the effect is sweet-toned but not saccharine. The scoring is quite transparent; the lucidity of the open-spaced chords of the BBCSO strings forms a striking background for Pailthorpe’s fragmented fanfare motifs which have a surprisingly brassy quality at times. As the strings widen the harmonic expanse, then rove through dark bass regions, Brabbins conjures a full sound which can be troubling in its intensity but also consoling in its richness.

A good balance is struck throughout between soloist and accompanying ensemble: Pailthorpe may ‘lead’, but the strings’ contribution to the musical narrative forms a powerful current which joins at times with the soloist, either in imitative or unified expression.

As the bugle motifs become more melodic and the oboe rises to higher realms, we can enjoy Pailthorpe’s lovely pure tone; elsewhere the more virtuosic elaborations are incisive and sparkling. The Allegro molto ‘movement’ is dynamic and persuasive. As the oboe and upper strings scurry, propulsion is ensured by fast, marching pizzicatos and the cellos’ and double basses’ abrasive chords. Blackford’s technical assurance is evident in the swinging counterpoint between upper and lower strings, and between oboe and ensemble, as the melody lures the listener onward. Motoring repetitive motifs create a driving momentum reminiscent of Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets and build to the oboe’s virtuosic rise to an exuberantly trilling climax.

After such violence, the ‘mystic chords of memory’ return, a shimmer through which the distant oboe theme, reflective and insular, pierces. Brabbins encourages a weight from the basses in the closing passages which suggests majesty and spiritual depth. As the strings take up and expand the Better Angel theme over a long pedal, the rich textures and evolving harmonies offer a warm bed for the oboe’s probing injections; the slow, controlled vibrato of Pailthorpe’s long-held notes is wonderfully penetrating. In the concluding passages, stillness is allied with breadth and depth, in a manner which seems not so far removed from the Vaughan Williams of the Fifth Symphony. Neither melody nor harmony ‘close’ with ‘finality’, yet there is a true sense of peace.
Claire Seymour



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