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Éclats romantiques
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Violin Sonata in A major (1886) [28:48]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Les berceaux Op. 23 (1879) [3:10]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
4 Impromptus D 935 No.3 in B flat major (1827) [12:42]
Marina DRANISHNIKOVA (1929-194)
Poema for oboe and piano (1953) [8:06]
Antonio PASCULLI (1842-1924)
Amelia [6:24]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-49)
Prelude Op. 28 No. 15 in D flat major, ‘Raindrop’ (1838) [6:19]
Stanislas VERROUST (1814-1863)
Solo de concert No.11, Op. 85 (1864) [9:31]
David Walter (oboe, cor anglais)
Magdalena Duś (piano)
rec. 2018, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Chamber Hall, Katowice, Poland
DUX 1546 [75:08]

I approached this disc of Romantic music performed by oboe and piano with curiosity combined with a little caution. As a violinist, of sorts, who instinctively bristles when cellists ‘borrow’ César Franck’s Violin Sonata, the notion of the work being performed by the oboe and cor anglais gave rise to more than a few questions and doubts. French oboist David Walter and Polish pianist Magdalena Duś answer and qualm some, but not all, but taken as a whole, Éclats romantiques is notable for its refreshing prompts to re-visit, reflect upon and re-imagine the familiar, and its invitation to take pleasure in the less well-known.

As an acclaimed soloist (and winner of five international performance prizes, in Munich, Prague, Ancona, Belgrade and Geneva), chamber musician, conductor, composer and teacher, Walter brings a range of complementary perspectives to these works, both transcriptions and originals. But, Franck’s sonata presents challenges. After repeated hearings, I would say that the oboe/cor anglais cannot offer the variety of tone colour to convey the music’s deep poetic sentiments – Franck’s ‘più forte e con calore’, ‘brillante’ and ‘grandiose’ don’t really register – nor can it build through those gloriously expansive phrases with the sort of dramatic intensity which is surely requisite. Added to this, the absence of portamento and vibrato, which make the sound swell and bloom, is sometimes unsettling though not necessarily problematic.

However, there are other absences – of elements which sometimes mar violinists’ performances – which are welcome. There is no heavy-handedness here: Duś negotiates the density of the piano part with remarkable lucidity and refinement, though no loss of passion; similarly, there is no heart-on-sleeve over-emotionalism. In their place we have a calm composure and melodic fluidity which are persuasive. And, my misgivings that the oboe might not have the stature to withstand the tumultuousness of the piano writing were overturned by the engineers who have done a fine job in balancing the voices.

In the Allegro moderato which opens Franck’s Sonata, Walter glides through the phrases with poise, often almost eliding them, but though he rises cleanly and smoothly to the high peaks, with a warm tone, inevitably one misses the sheen and shine of a violin’s E string– glistening with steel, softened with judicious vibrato. The tone at the top feels, to my ear, too nasal and constricted; it does not glow. There are occasional enforced octave transpositions which inevitably disrupt the continuity of line. That said, Walter’s playing is eloquent, controlled and well-considered. The oboe’s rise into the final cadence is beautifully shaped and the soft fade unmannered.

It is the second movement Allegro which I feel most struggles to overcome the restrictions of transcription. The virtuosity of both performers is impressive, the tempests in the piano crystal- clear, the oboe’s insistent urging clean and rhythmically taut. I like the fact that the performers don’t pull the tempo about with exaggerated surges and ebbs, or over-egg the dynamic contrasts, as some are wont. Walter produces a beautiful legato line in the dolce ‘trio’ section; with no need to negotiate shifts and bow-crossings, the large falling intervals are effortlessly, beguilingly smooth. But, he can’t compensate for loss of the G-string’s grain and the grit of attack at the heel of the bow in the main Molto fuoco, and I miss the colour and timbral range to which my ear is accustomed. We have contained passion rather than fiery freedom. In the closing episodes the octave transpositions are problematic, disrupting both the logic and the spirit of the music, as in the concluding phrase where the oboe’s climactic peak is lost within the piano tumult rather than triumphant above it. The violin plays a low double-stopped sixth at the close, the oboe a lone note, standing out starkly against the piano chord rather than richly and warmly embedded within it.

The Moderato, in which Walter switches to cor anglais, is the most successful of the movements. In many ways it is the heart of the Sonata, as the theme which has been introduced and then interrogated now undergoes a magical transformation into its destined realisation. Walter and Duś create a wonderful poetic fluidity and consoling calmness, the piano rippling coolly, the fantasia recitative unfolding compellingly. The cor anglais’s deeper intensity of tone is affecting, though the striving octave leaps need a little more kick at the start of each note if the restless agitation inherent in the theme’s metamorphosis is to be conveyed. Sweetness and joy characterise the Allegretto poco mosso; there are some lovely rubatos at phrase-ends, creating a sense of freedom as the music propels itself forwards. Duś’ right-hand cascades are glitteringly crystalline while the piano’s bass is finely defined and dynamic. But, oh for the violin’s glorious ascents and peaks, and the shining apotheosis!

Franck’s Sonata begins and is the mainstay of the disc, the remainder of which comprises shorter transcriptions and original compositions. The duo’s performance of Fauré’s ‘Les berceaux’, transcribed by Walter for cor anglais, perfectly captures the song’s blend of tenderness and melancholy. We hear the cor anglais again in Chopin’s so-called ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, an interesting transcription in which during the central minor-key section the piano is the principal voice as the cor anglais intervenes within the piano’s low tremors and surges, creating a counter-voice of sighs and, at one point, a propulsive syncopated dialogue with the piano’s repeating ‘rain-drop’.
In the third of Schubert’s Op.142 Impromptus, Walter and Duś set out on a breezy stroll and the up-beat spirit is sustained in the first variation, the piano trickling light-heartedly and the oboe dancing buoyantly above. In the second, a cheeky dialogue ensues as Duś takes over Walter’s mischievous semiquavers and ornamentations, the oboe ‘butting in’ with pressing syncopations before regaining the reins and skipping off in staccato high spirits. Despite its dark melancholy, the third variation has strong and stirring momentum, while in the fourth the duo convincingly traverse varied moods and dramas. Duś’ cascades sparkle in the closing variation, given a first gentle, then more insistent nudge by the oboe’s syncopations. It’s a terrific transcription, brilliantly played.

There are two nineteenth-century show-pieces by virtuoso oboist-composers, Stanislas Verroust and the ‘Paganini of the oboe’, Antonio Pasculli. The latter’s Amelia, a ‘fantasy’ on a theme from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, begins with agitated piano rhetoric which is salved by the cor anglais which caresses the soulful pleadings of Amelia’s mournful prayer with exquisite sensitivity, before despatching the subsequent finger- and tongue-tying virtuosities with aplomb. Verroust’s Op.11 Solo de concert for oboe and piano has a similar operatic quality which Walter and Duś capture skilfully, moving fluently between its diverse moods, by turns pensive, sorrowful, stormy, defiant, consoling and carefree. Verroust was known as the ‘oboist of the impossible’ but that doesn’t seem to trouble Walter who races through the elaborations with stunning facility.

Alongside these Romantic works, there is a single composition from the twentieth century. Poema by the Russian composer Marina Dranishnikova was written in 1953 and dedicated to the principal oboe of the Leningrad Philharmonic, apparently an expression of her unrequited love. Its harmonies and lyrical poignancy seem to owe much to Rachmaninov, as do the complex figurations in the piano part which Duś plays with fervour and lucidity. The emotional restlessness presents challenges but the duo communicate its dramas assuredly and shape the troubled episodes into a coherent whole.

Whatever my personal misgivings about the transcription of Franck’s Sonata, this disc offers considerable musical poetry and authenticity. A real treat for oboe lovers.

Claire Seymour

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