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Phoenix
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012) 
Four Country Dances (2000) [9:44]
William ALWYN (1905-1985) 
Sonata for oboe and piano (1934) [18:32]
Michael BERKELEY (b.1948) 
Snake (1994) [5:04]
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959) 
Lament for a Lovelorn Lenanshee (1993) [10:56]
Jonathan PEASE (b.1988) 
Westbourne Nocturne (2019) [10:12] *
Paul PATTERSON (b.1947) 
Phoenix Sonata (2010) [16:24] *
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Harmonic Variations (1909, arr. Robert Threlfall, 1998) [6:26] *
Nicola Hands (oboe/cor anglais)
Jonathan Pease (piano)
rec. 21-23 October 2019, Plumcroft Primary School, Woolwich, London
First recordings *
EM RECORDS EMRCD066 [77:18]

This disc presents works for oboe and piano or cor anglais and piano by seven English composers, none of whom is really a household name; even the Delius is an arrangement by Robert Threlfall. Do not let this put you off, however, as we are given a cornucopia of wonderful music. Only two of the works are known to me, offering new horizons to the listener and a wealth of interesting and enjoyable music.

The disc opens with Richard Rodney Bennett’s Four Country Dances composed in 2000, just twelve years before his death. Here, Bennett turns to John Playford’s ‘The English Dancing Master’ for these tunes, which he treats sensitively and almost reverently. The dance tune is found in writing for the oboe, while the piano has more than just a supportive role, with some complicated contrapuntal and syncopated writing for the instrument, which at times sounds at odds with the oboe tune at times but still offers a base for the oboe to hover above. These are very impressive interpretations of the four song tunes, forming an ideal opening to this disc.

The first of the pieces that I know is William Alwyn’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano of 1934, the other version I have being by Nicholas Daniel and Julius Drake (CHAN 9197). Their performance is marginally quicker, especially in the first two movements, than Nicola Hands and Jonathan Pease. However, I prefer this new recording as it gives the music more of a chance to breath, especially in the central Andantino movement, while the ternary structure of the Moderato e grazioso first movement also comes out a little better here. William Alwyn filed away some of his earlier pre-war works deeming them unworthy, but here Hands and Pease make a strong argument for this work, as Daniel and Drake had before. This work clearly deserves its place on this disc.

The Alwyn is followed by the other work I know, Michael Berkeley’s Snake for solo cor anglais, which again is marginally slower than Alison Teale’s version for Oboe Classics (CC2023). This gives the music the chance to slither, as it takes D H Lawrence’s poem of the same name as its inspiration and describes how on a stiflingly hot day in Sicily a comes for a drink. The poem reflecting Lawrence’s ambivalence to the snake; he should kill it but it is not threatening him. The creature’s movement is captured well by Berkeley as it slinks in to view, an effect Nicola Hands creates by exploiting the range of the cor anglais in this solo work.

The Jonathan Dove piece has soon become my favourite on the disc. Hands and Pease bring off Lament for a Lovelorn Lenanshee well. Hands here returns to the oboe. In his brief note for the piece, Jonathan Dove explains that he found his Lenanshee, or fairy mistress, in a traditional Irish song, My Lagan Love, using the melody as the impetus for his own work. The eleven-minute work is quite varied; its mystical opening presents the tune, Dove then goes on to weave the melody through dance-like episodes, including a “kind of jig” with a powerful repeated motif on the piano and the oboe rising above, before the roles are reversed and the work concludes with a restatement of the tune. This wonderful short work has certainly made an impact. Hand and Pease’s playing is thrillingly evocative.

The name of Jonathan Pease is new to me, both as a composer and pianist, but on this evidence, he will certainly be a name to look out for. His beautifully evocative Westbourne Nocturne giving traces the course of the River Westbourne as it flows from Hampstead until it joins the Thames at Chelsea. Here, we get the full range of atmosphere, from the river’s misty rising through London’s club-land, with its dance music and even jazzy syncopation. Pease explains in his booklet note that the work, which he describes as a “sonatina” for cor anglais and piano, was composed in 2019 at the invitation of Nicola Hands to celebrate their performing partnership, and I can imagine it being a popular piece in their concerts.

The most challenging of the seven works on this disc is Paul Patterson’s Phoenix Sonata of 2010, which is a condensed transcription of his Phoenix Concerto for oboe and orchestra which had been premiered the previous year. It is composed in three movements although it runs without a break. The two outer ones are brusque, even fiery at times, while the central Tranquillo offers a peaceful interlude that explores the mellifluous character of the oboe. This is then dovetailed into the “breezy finale” with its “whirlwind cadenza”. This is a work which grows on me the more I listen. While it is certainly the most modern sounding, it clearly builds upon the English tradition of oboe music.

The final work on the disc is Robert Threlfall’s arrangement of Frederick Delius’ Dance Rhapsody No. 1, Harmonic Variations for cor anglais and piano. Threlfall was a leading scholar of Delius’ life and an editor of his music. He produced the definitive catalogue of his works in 1977, and a supplement in 1986. Threlfall has edited the Rhapsody, cutting it by half and replacing the original bass oboe with the cor anglais. Despite this, the character of the piece remains. Harmonic Variations, apparently Delius’ original working title, has the cor anglais supplying the melody over the piano which “provides ingenious chromatic accompaniments”. The arrangement is faithful to its source but I find the orchestral original preferable, however ingenious the arrangement is.

The performances of Nicola Hands, whether it be on oboe or cor anglais, and of Jonathan Pease, are excellent, aided by the pleasing acoustic and natural recorded sound. The booklet notes are excellent and offer brief notes on the composers and their music, some by the composers themselves, all of which adds up to a highly enjoyable and recommendable release.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: John France



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