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Singing Oboe
Egil HOVLAND (1924-2013)
Cantus VIII, for oboe and string quartet, op. 129 (1986) [11:51]
Kjell HABBESTAD (b. 1955)
Concerto for oboe and orchestra, op. 89 (2011) [31:39]
Johan KVANDAL (1919-1999)
Concerto for oboe and string orchestra, op. 46 (1977) [20:29]
Bob THIELE (1922-1996)/George David WEISS (1921-2010)
What a Wonderful World (arr. Westby) [2:30]
Trygve Aarvik (oboe)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Ingvar Bergby
rec. 2018, NRK Concert Hall, Oslo, Norway

One of my favourite pieces of music is a contemporary oboe concerto, written in 2000 (Inflight Entertainment by Australian Graeme Koehne) so when I read Richard Hanlon’s review of this release and then saw a second copy offered for review, I thought “Why not”. Perhaps some reflection on the limited number of contemporary concertos that I’ve actually liked might have been appropriate.

Egil Hovland’s Cantus VIII is somewhere between a concerto and an oboe quintet. It is probably the most “modern”, least melodic of the three, but is still perfectly listenable for someone like me, who prefers music to have at least some element of melodic form. Richard Hanlon describes Hovland’s style as “approachable serialism”, and given that Richard reviews a lot of hard-edged modernist music, I will take his word for it. It would explain why it didn’t make a great impression on me, but nor was I repelled by it. Not much singing in evidence, though.

While the Habbestad concerto is the most recent of the three, it sounds the most traditional. Indeed much of the orchestral accompaniment reminded me of film music in both good and bad ways; good in the bold and grand melodies, especially in the brass, bad because it was very “bitty” and episodic. That’s fine, and indeed necessary, in a filmscore, but not in a concerto. The outer movements are both in excess of 10 minutes long, and don’t really have the invention to support their length. The first movement has a most unusual tempo marking – Allegro affannoso – which apparently means fast and breathless, or even out of breath (by the end). I’m afraid I was more running out of interest, though I’m sure the soloist was breathless. I did expect to find some singing in the slow movement, but if it was there, then it was rather emotionless. The two minute scherzo has a light touch which is appreciated, but the final movement, described in the notes as a rhapsody, opens with brass like the Olympic fanfare, and the oboe eventually disappears in increasingly rambunctious brass and percussion. Three of the four movements are apparently inspired by poetry, from sources as diverse as Verlaine, Tennyson and a Norwegian children’s author. Not knowing any of the poems, I’ll take that as read but it didn’t really alter my judgement of the work. Still not much singing.

Like Richard, I found the Kvandahl the best of the three, and there was even some singing, wistful as it was, in the slow movement. Its three movements, none lasting more than seven and a half minutes, are tautly constructed and don’t overstretch their materials. Again, there isn’t a whole lot of tunefulness in its Neoclassical asperity, but the rhythms provide the necessary interest.

The “encore” of the What a wonderful world arrangement is a very odd inclusion. It’s not as though it fills out the disc much, and is so out of keeping with the other three works. It doesn’t even get mentioned in the booklet notes.

None of these mostly negative comments should be seen as criticism of the performers. Trygve Aarvik does a fine job in negotiating the potential pitfalls of the solo writing and the orchestra does its job well. It’s just that, for me anyway, the music isn’t memorable. Richard made mention of the dry sound, which certainly doesn’t help to promote any sense of singing. The booklet notes read a little awkwardly in places, and some more careful proofreading wouldn’t have gone astray.

Will I return to this? Probably not, though I am happy to have made the acquaintance of the Kvandahl in particular. It’s just that I expected more singing.

David Barker

Previous review: Richard Hanlon

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