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Light & Shade
Gabriel GROVLEZ (1879-1944)
Sarabande et Allegro (1929) [6:20]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Nicht Schnell from Drei Romanzen Op.94 (1849-51) [3:44]
Lamont KENNAWAY (1899-1971)
Watersweet for cor anglais and piano (1964) [4:50]
Karl GOEPFART (1859-1942)
Zwei Charakterstücke Op.27 (1888) [7:03]
Émile PALADILHE (1844-1926)
Solo pour hautbois (1898) [4:53]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Duo for cor anglais and piano Op.156 (1980) [4:18]
Marina DRANISHNIKOVA (1929-1994)
Poem (1953) [8:30]
Eugène BOZZA (1905-91)
Divertissement for cor anglais and piano Op.39 [6:05]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Oboe Sonata Op.166 (1921) [10:48]
Nicola Hands (oboe, cor anglais)
Jonathan Pease (piano)
rec. 2019
Private Release [59:00]

Light & Shade does what it says on the proverbial tin. This disc of music for oboe/cor anglais and piano offers both sunniness and solemnity, levity and lament, in the form of varied repertory comprising some works which are accustomed to the spotlight and others which have dwelled in the shadows.
Oboist Nicola Hands graduated in 2013 from the Royal Academy of Music Masters programme, where she studied oboe with Melanie Ragge and cor anglais with Jill Crowther, and has since been busy as a concert soloist, chamber musician and freelance orchestral player in the UK and Europe. She is accompanied here by her frequent duo partner, pianist-composer-librettist Jonathan Pease.

The disc is framed by two of the more well-known compositions. Gabriel Grovlez’s Sarabande et Allegro was at one time a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire examinations. The neo-baroque grace of the Sarabande is communicated through Hands’ firm but nuanced tone, expressive extended phrases, and by the way she avoids rigidity when articulating the precise rhythms. She is able to withdraw to an impressively sweet and gentle pianissimo, especially at the top of the oboe’s range, and she knows how to use a trill expressively. Pease provides poised, undemonstrative support. The Allegro unfolds breezily and with easy fluency. The engineers, throughout the disc, balance the instruments effectively and the acoustic is bright but intimate.

The Andantino which opens Saint-Saëns’ Oboe Sonata in D, which dates from the final year of the composer’s life, shares Grovlez’s melodism and some of its ‘antique’ qualities, though the latter are complemented by freer phrasing and pulse, which the duo negotiate with naturalness, and more frequent counterpoint which is enhanced by the lucidity of the playing. In the second movement, both the piano’s initiating arppegiated chords and the oboe’s ad libitum explorations are thoughtfully placed yet purposeful in spirit. They lead convincingly to the liltingly carefree Allegretto which separates the two halves of the improvisatory frame. The Molto Allegro is vivacious and the brisk tempo stops neither player from articulating the rapid staccatos with absolute precision, and both lightness of touch and real bite.

Robert Schumann’s Three Romances Op.94 are much-loved and oft-transcribed, so it’s good to hear the first (why not all three?) of them in the form for which Schumann (or perhaps, Clara, if speculations about the authorship of the Romances is accurate) intended. Pease, appropriately, more frequently pushes the piano to the foreground here and demonstrates an innate feeling for the rubato ebb and flow of the music, creating restless waters upon which the oboe’s warm but haunting song can float. Rubbra’s Duo for cor anglais and piano extends the yearning Romanticism of Schumann’s romance into the soul’s darker places; its slow steady tread does not prevent Pease communicating a sometimes turbulent unease but this is balanced by the lyricism of Hands’ cor anglais rovings. Eugène Bozza’s Divertissement, in imitation of Debussy, allows the cor anglais to show its less melancholy, more mysterious, side. It is tenderly played: the duo embrace its initial improvisatory, occasionally ‘oriental’, journeyings; its subsequent tuneful reflections; and its concluding agile exuberance.

Of the less familiar offerings, Lamont Kennaway’s Watersweet, also for cor anglais makes the least absorbing impression. It is a somewhat insipid salon piece: the musical language is conventional, the ternary form simple, and the material is restated rather than developed. It purports to be a musical description of the meeting of the Waters, in North Devon: so, there are two contrasting themes – though not all that contrasting – which are announced separately and then combined. Karl Goepfart’s Zwei Charakterstücke are of more interest. In Mässig schnell, gehend the duo adopt a flowing tempo which allows the varied ideas to evolve and integrate, leading to a satisfying recapitulation and affirmative cadenza-coda. Mässig langsam has a hymn-like steadiness and serenity which is elegantly and personably communicated. Hands’ warm, full tone is affecting and adds to the appeal of both Goepfart’s character pieces and Émile Paladilhe’s Solo pour hautbois which has a sprightliness and charm.

I first encountered Marina Dranishnikova’s Poem only recently, when reviewing David Walter and Magdalena Duś’ release on Dux, Éclats romantiques (review). Hands and Pease declare Poem to be ‘the centrepiece’ of their disc. It’s certainly both the longest and the most emotionally expansive and theatrical work on Light & Shade, apparently an expression of unrequited love. Pease delves eloquently into the dark Russian grain, but the piano’s intricate figurations are never weighty or overly dense. Hands really makes the oboe melodies sing and cohere. They adopt a slightly less precipitous tempo than Walter and Duś choose, and this allows Dranishnikova’s Rachmaninov-like lyricism to gleam more brightly and breathe more freely. Diverse of mood, restless of spirit, inventive and heartfelt, Dranishnikova’s work is, I agree with Hands, a powerful personal and musical statement. It’s hard to imagine a more sensitive and sincere performance of Poem than it receives here.

Claire Seymour

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