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S & H Recital Review

"War & Innocence" – Bartók, Finzi, Vaughan-Williams, Patterson, Ravel, Korth, Britten: Emily Pailthorpe (Oboe), Julian Milford (Piano) & James Gilchrist (Tenor), Wigmore Hall, 8th June 2004 (H-T W)


At 32 degrees Celsius, it had been London’s hottest day this year and contrary to expectations a mainly young audience filled the hall to near capacity to witness the Wigmore Hall recital debut of the outstanding young American oboe player Emily Pailthorpe. In 1989, and at a very young age, she won the Gillet International Oboe Competition and was hailed as the `Jacqueline du Pré of the oboe´ - certainly not an ideal comparison if one thinks of du Pré’s tragic illness. After studying English at Yale and Oboe at Juliard, graduating with distinction from both academies, and after some years as Principal Oboe with many distinguished American orchestras, she moved to England to marry the British flute player Daniel Pailthorpe. Together, with the pianist Julian Milford, they founded the chamber ensemble CONCHORD.

It rarely happens to me, but not only was I confronted with three exceptional musicians I did not know, there were also six works I had never heard before. It could have been a disaster, instead it turned out to be sheer delight – an evening of more or less precious miniatures interpreted with incredible care, understanding and the kind of involved musicianship which makes a concert such an enthralling experience. Emily Pailthorpe is an oboist capable of producing a heavenly tone as well as extreme virtuosity, along with the requisite level of sound if a pieces asks for it; she is fully involved, but without the slightest tension. I will look out for her in the future.

But I was also thrilled by her accompanist Julian Milford, who never ever overshadowed her, playing with delicate ease and understanding - for once, a chamber musician comparable to Susan Tomes, my favourite accompanist. The beautiful lightness of the tenor James Gilchrist made me again aware that there is no better venue for the voice than the Wigmore Hall.

Emily Pailthorpe pointed out that at the time they planned this concert they did not know it would be performed just after the D-Day celebrations. To quote from her program note, "Tonight’s concert brings together a collection of works expressing innocence and its antithesis, war. Whilst the pain and brutality of war are depicted by Britten and Korth, the works by Finzi and Ravel are imbued with the deep loss which pervades war’s aftermath. Innocence finds voice in the pastoral and folk idiom of Vaughan-Williams and Bartok, but also haunts the whole programme. It can never be far from war because the experience of war is in itself the loss of innocence."

In "Three Folk Songs from the County of Csik" (1907), one of the earliest examples of Bartok’s lifelong effort to hand down the folk tradition of his native Hungary, the oboe appeals as the ideal instrument to deliver all the Hungarian melancholy and temperament needed – and it was a short, but moving prelude.

Originally the middle movement of a suite for oboe and strings, Finzi’s "Interlude" (1933-36) had been arranged for oboe and piano by his friend Howard Ferguson. I have rarely heard a work of such haunting, sad, deeply emotional and powerful feelings. Emily Pailthorpe’s interpretation is reason enough to get hold of a copy of her CD "Though Lovers be Lost", which includes other works played in this concert together with compositions by Dutilleux and Goosens (Oboe Classics CC 2008).

Vaughan-Williams wrote his "Ten Blake Songs" (1957) for the film "The Vision of William Blake", scored for tenor and oboe - indeed, not only a `masterpiece of economy and precision´, but also one of the most beautiful examples of the English pastoral tradition. Of the seven songs they had chosen, three belonged to the tenor alone – and James Gilchrist’s voice filled the hall with warmth and beauty. Understandably, when one gives a first recital in this famous hall, there has to be a piece to show off one’s virtuosity. That must have been the reason, to finish the first half with "Duologue" (1984) by Paul Patterson. It was fun and full of jazzy idioms in the outer movements, but contained a rather long and unsatisfying middle section.

After the interval, Emily Pailthorpe and Julian Milford played three of the four movements from Ravel’s Suite for piano "Le Tombeau de Couperin" (1914-17), (also orchestrated by Ravel) in an astonishing arrangement by Daniel Pailthorpe. (The CD also includes the fourth movement). The oboe plays an important part in the version for orchestra but Pailthorpe’s endeavour to combine the essence of both versions is extremely successful and enriches the oboe repertoire. All movements are composed in memory of friends who died in the First World War.

With "War’s Embers" (2004) by the young composer Nicholas Korth (b.1971) a world premier followed. His setting of four poems by the poet Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) – musically combining his love for the Gloucestershire countryside and his experiences in the First World War – are deeply rooted in the English song tradition. For the sombre mood of these poems he preferred the baroque oboe

d’ amore; together with the tenor James Gilchrist the two soloists made it a worthwhile experience to listen to the honesty of this composition.

Next to Finzi’s "Interlude", another highlight brought the evening to a close. Benjamin Britten wrote his "Temporal Variations" in 1936 having originally been asked by his friend and librettist Montagu Slater to write a War Requiem. He did, of course, not write the famous "War Requiem" until 1961, but instead, and with the same contents in mind, composed the "Temporal Variations" for piano and oboe, and it is an overpoweringly political, as well as satirical work of genius. It had its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall on the 15th December 1936, but the critics hated it calling it a triviality. It was never performed again during Britten’s lifetime. With hindsight, it proves again that Britten’s early works belong amongst his best. This overpowering interpretation is also included on the CD and having listened to it already many times I constantly find new connotations in it which puts me in mind of a miniature version of that epic novel "The last days of Human Mankind" by the Austrian Karl Kraus. As a fitting encore a memorable evening finished with Britten’s arrangement of "Salley Gardens".  

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt

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