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Christopher Tyler NICKEL (b.1978)
Concerto for Oboe (2012) [28:38]
Concerto for Oboe d’amore (2014) [18:17]
Concerto for Bass Oboe (2016) [21:39]
Mary Lynch (oboe, oboe d’amore)
Harrison Linsey (bass oboe)
Northwest Sinfonia / David Sabee.
rec. September 2017, July 2018, December 2018, St. Thomas Chapel, Bastyr University, Kenmore, Washington
AVIE AV2433 [68:52]

The pedant in me feels obliged to point out that the title of this CD ought to read Concertos for Oboes rather than Concertos for Oboe, since each of these three concertos is written for a different member of the oboe family. The earliest of the three – and also the first on this CD – is for the ‘standard’ oboe with which every reader will be familiar. The second concerto on the disc (which was also the second in order of composition) is for the oboe d’amore. Where the standard oboe has, in essence, a sound in the soprano range, several writers have described the oboe d’amore as the mezzo or contralto of the oboe family. Nowadays we most often hear this instrument in baroque music, as in works by Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi and others. After the middle of the Eighteenth Century, the oboe d’amore was rarely heard until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when it was adopted by composers such as Richard Strauss (in his Sinfonia Domestica, 1904), Debussy (in Gigues, 1912) and Ravel (Bolero, 1928). Significant later uses of the oboe d’amore which I am aware of include Toru Takemitsu’s Vers l’arc-en-ciel, Palma, 1984) and, for oboe d’amore and piano, Leonard Salzedo’s Cantiga Mózarabe (1970) and Elizabeth Lutyens’ Morning Sea (1979).

The last (in date of composition) of Nickel’s concertos for oboe, which closes this disc, was written for the bass oboe – an instrument heard as a soloist less often even than the oboe d’amore. Looking up the instrument online I was reminded that Gavin Bryars wrote (in 1994) The East-Coast, a concerto for bass oboe and chamber orchestra, a work I have heard of, but never actually heard. Nor can I think of any other significant uses of the bass oboe as a soloist – unless one counts Holst’s use of it in ‘Saturn’.

It comes as no surprise to learn (from the booklet essay by Julian Haylock) that Christopher Tyler Nickel used to be an oboist. His current reputation is, though, as a composer, for the concert hall as well as for the theatre and TV/film. His screen-writing credits (which have won him several awards) include works for companies such as Discovery, CBC, National Geographic and Hallmark. Further details can be found at the composer’s website. Of recordings of his classical compositions I have heard (via a streaming service) only the 2019 album Music for Woodwind Choirs (Centrediscs CMCCD27019) which contains two works (each in four movements), a Suite for Two Oboes and Two English Horns and the Symphony for Flute Choir. My reaction to those works – that they were well-made works offering pleasant listening, without being especially individual or exciting - was initially replicated on hearing the present disc.

The writing in these three concertos is tonal and all three are well put together and skillfully orchestrated. Each concerto seeks to respond to, and articulate, the distinctive character of each of the three solo instruments. The Concerto for Oboe is in three movements: Andante (forcefully)AndanteAllegro (with driving energy), as is the Concerto for Bass Oboe: AndanteAdagioAllegro agitato; the Concerto for Oboe d’amore is in two movements: Andante – Andante misterioso-Andante agitato-Andante.

In the first movement of the concerto for Oboe, after a somewhat fierce initial statement by the full orchestra, there is a beautiful passage for the oboe. The attractive thing in this movement is the way Nickel alternates subtle and gentle writing with grander, more forceful passages. The problem, though, is that sometimes the orchestral tutti sound is disproportionately loud vis-ą-vis the solo oboe (this, I suspect, is largely occasioned by the recorded balance, rather than Nickel’s writing). After the drama which characterizes much of the first movement, the second has a quieter, almost nocturnal quality, with the oboe very much the more prominent voice and the orchestra now clearly cast in a supportive role. There is some lovely writing for the soloist here, with some attractively lyrical lines played eloquently by Mary Lynch. The Allegro finale, as played here, certainly has the “driving energy” asked for by the composer. The writing for the soloist demands a deal of instrumental virtuosity, which Mary Lynch (principal oboe of the Seattle Symphony) supplies without any obvious difficulties. Throughout a good deal of this movement there is a sense of orchestra and soloist pursuing one another and the athleticism of both Nickel’s music and the performers is exhilarating.

Ever since I first heard it, I have had a particular fondness for the oboe d’amore, with its soft, mellow tone which enters the ears with the subtlety of a well-balanced red wine. My soft spot for the instrument was, I suspect, one reason why I found Nickel’s Concerto for Oboe d’amore more completely satisfying than his grander Concerto for Oboe. Nickel’s perception of the instrument gets beyond the usual stereotypes. He says (quoted in the booklet essay), “Oboists are accustomed to bringing out the oboe d’amore to play the lovely flowing contrapuntal passages of Bach, which are beautiful and expressive. In tackling my concerto they also have to find that part of its sound which is more biting, brittle, and angry.” On one level the two movements of this concerto for the instrument can be seen as demonstrations of its timbral range. The first movement is eloquently lyrical, holding a sense of anxiety in balance with quasi-pastoral reassurance. In the longer second movement, the anxiety dominates and there are times when the oboe d’amore does, indeed, sound “biting, brittle, and angry.” This instrument, so often described as sounding ‘delicate’ has its moments of coarseness here (though it also has a very beautiful cadenza towards the movement’s close). The orchestral writing is strikingly beautiful too, in a concerto which makes a very good case for the contemporary validity of the oboe d’amore as a vehicle for emotionally expressive music.

With the Concerto for Bass Oboe we move to the bottom end of the oboe family, in terms of pitch. Nickel suggests that the bass oboe has “angst and anxiety in its sound … like the years are wearing on for the ‘bringer of old age’ (that last phrase is, of course, an allusion to Holst’s use of the bass oboe in ‘Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age’, the fifth movement of The Planets). Nickel’s first movement has a deep (not just in pitch) mood of troubled awareness, which is only intermittently assuaged or fought off. Indeed, there is an air of conflicted emotions and mental states throughout the first two movements. The soloist, Harrison Linsey deserves considerable praise both for how he sustains the longish phrases demanded in the Andante and Adagio movements and how he negotiates the insistent, darkly dancing final movement (which Nickel describes as “a classic hexenrunde, or ‘witch’s round’”). All three movements must have been challenging to play, given that that the bass oboe is, in Linsey’s words, an instrument with “a great deal of backpressure and resistance”, needing considerable “diaphragm strength”.

Of the three works, I have most enjoyed the Concerto for Oboe d’amore and the Concerto for Bass Oboe; I am inclined to think, with repeated hearings, that the Concerto for Oboe rather over-extends its material. Both soloists are very impressive and David Sabee conducts with perception and good judgement.

Glyn Pursglove

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