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Music for Oboe and Piano

Nicola Hands (oboe/cor anglais)
Jonathan Pease (piano)
rec. 21-23 October 2019, Plumcroft Primary School, Woolwich, London

This imaginative and rewarding CD opens with Richard Rodney Bennett’s Four Country Dances composed in 2000. The source of these tunes was John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, first published in 1651 and followed by various revisions, expansions and supplements. The four Dances are: A New Dance, Lady Day, The Mulberry Garden, and Nobody’s Jig. The liner notes explain that these “are characterised by faithful, expressive statements of the dance tunes by the oboe, supported by rich, chromatic piano accompaniments that betray the composer’s stature as a jazz pianist.”  I was struck by the generally reflective nature of this music. Despite RRB’s contention he had been let down by the musical establishment in the UK, all four dances, including the final Jig, seem to harbour a considerable nostalgia for England. These dances were written in New York. It should be noted that there are other collections of Country Dances by Rodney Bennett, including more for oboe and piano, some for orchestra, as well as an arrangement of the present set for soprano saxophone and piano.

The longest work on this CD is William Alwyn’s Sonata for oboe and piano (1934). This is a remarkable essay, despite being one of several disowned by Alwyn when he destroyed (or at least hid) many of his compositions written before the Second World War. This sonata is not written in a folksy or bucolic style, nor is it modernistic. The three-movement work is deliberately unbalanced; the first movement equals in length the second and third combined. I have noted before my surprise that the opening movement sometimes defies its ‘grazioso’ tempo. There is much here that is slow and introspective. The second Andantino prolongs this mood of reflection. The finale is a little waltz, very French in style. Splendidly played here.

Michael Berkeley’s Snake (1994) for solo cor anglais is an interesting little study. It was inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s eponymous poem, so the music suggests the hot, sultry weather of Sicily. Berkeley’s score balances the “languorous, lithe nature of this majestic creature” with the atmospherics of a summer’s day in Taormina, situated close to a pool of water far beneath Mount Etna. It is sinewy and exotic in mood.

The traditional Irish song, My Lagan Love is the basis for Jonathan Dove’s Lament for a Lovelorn Lenanshee for oboe and piano. It was composed in 1993 and premiered in January the following year. For the curious, the Leanhaun Shee (several spellings) is a “fairy mistress” who desires the love of mortals. There is a catch, however: if they consent, they are subject to her forever, unless they can find a willing substitute. If they refuse, they become her slave for eternity. Dove’s music is effectively a commentary on My Lagan Love. It is a long work, lasting for eleven minutes. Many moods are explored including a misty opening, river music, a jig, and fairylike will o’ the wisp. It is a lovely example of late 20th century Celtic Revival.

My favourite work on this CD is the moody and sometimes smoochy Westbourne Nocturne for cor anglais and piano written by Jonathan Pease in 2019. The notes explain the background to this music; it is a musical impression of Westbourne Park in north west London. There is a smoky feel about it which somehow makes me think of 1950s nightlife (not that I recall that!). Perhaps it is the cocktail piano style accompaniment that emerges here and there? Weirdly, the composer refers to this as a “sonatina” in his liner notes. Even a superficial hearing defines it more as a “nocturne”, and a stunningly beautiful and evocative one at that. It presents not just night clubs with their jazzy rhythms, but also the gently moving waters of the Grand Union Canal, the biz of the A40 Westway and a late night, semi-deserted Westbourne Park tube station. It is one of the most evocative “London Pieces” in the repertoire.

Paul Patterson’s Phoenix Sonata (2010) is a transcription of his Phoenix Concerto for oboe and orchestra, premiered in 2009. Seemingly, the duration has been condensed. Patterson has explained that “The fire, passion and power of the Phoenix are very present in the outer movements of this composition, with the last movement filled with mesmerising dance-rhythms. The oboe’s unparalleled ability to recreate the feel of exotic birdsong is showcased in the opening cadenza and central slow movement.”  There is an improvisatory feel about much of this music, although, I understand that the rhythmic and melodic virtuosity is strictly controlled.  The finale is dashing, vibrant and complex.

It is good to have Fred Delius’s Harmonic Variations on CD. This piece is effectively a reworking of parts of Delius’s Dance Rhapsody No.1 which was premiered in 1909. The liner notes explain that Delius’s “fondness for the Theme and Variations form here expressing itself through the increasingly chromatic transformation of a simple country dance tune, first stated in the orchestra by the oboe.”  The original title appended to the holograph of the Dance Rhapsody [No 1] was simply “Harmonic Variations”. The late Philip Threlfall has arranged this as a “showcase” for oboe and piano. It is about half the length of the original. How successful this reworking is, will be up to the listener to decide. For me, the jury is still out on this one.

The playing by Nicola Hands (oboe/cor anglais) and Jonathan Pease (piano) is splendid in every case. The recording is ideal. The liner notes by various hands, provide all the information required for understanding and enjoyment of every work. Details of the composers and soloists are also included. This is an imaginative and varied recital presenting at least one old favourite (Alwyn) and introduces several World Premieres.

John France 

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]

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