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From Leipzig to London - Duo Sonatas from the 18th and 20th Centuries
Gordon JACOB (1895-1984)
Sonatina for oboe and harpsichord (1963) [9:30]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sonata in D for oboe d'amore and harpsichord BMV 1028 [14:35]
Stephen DODGSON (b. 1924)
Sonatina for oboe and harpsichord (1972) [8:41]
Johann Sebastian BACH  (1685-1750)
Sonata in G for cor anglais and harpsichord BWV 1027 [13:11]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
Three Bagatelles for oboe and harpsichord (1972) [8:29]
Johann Sebastian BACH  (1685-1750)
Sonata in G minor for oboe and harpsichord BWV 1020 [9:19]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976)
Siciliana for oboe and harpsichord (1972) [5:50]
Althea Ifeka (oboe, oboe d'amore, cor anglais)
Katharine May (harpsichord)
rec. Church of St Edward the Confessor, Mottingham, London, 7-9 July 2005. DDD
OBOE CLASSICS CC2013 [69:44]


Contrast of repertoire and contrast of instrumental timbre are the order of the day. The gloaming honey of the oboe and its brethren set off by the tangy resonance of the harpsichord. The most obvious contrast, accentuated by alternation of works, is between Bach's sonatas and the various 20th century British pieces. In fact, as can be seen, three of the British items are from 1972 when the music of Jacob and Head was being overrun by a dissonant orthodoxy then having reached muscular maturity.

The Bach works were originally believed to date from his Cöthen years. The current academic convention is that they belong to the Leipzig period (1723-1750). None were originally written for the instruments played here. BWV 1020 was for flute while BMV 1027 and 1028 were for viola da gamba. The three are nicely varied within the recital by each being played by a different instrument: oboe d'amore, cor anglais and oboe. They are played with grace and eloquent feeling within the baroque conventions familiar to all from the four orchestral suites and Brandenburg concertos. You will almost certainly make new friends among these three with the cor anglais being more stately and less agile and limber than its brethren in BWV 1028 and 1020. 

Let's look at the three 1972 British works. Michael Head is best known for his songs. The surface of that heritage has hardly been scratched as yet. We certainly need a Michel Head Edition comparable to the work done by Hyperion for Schubert - and then they can do the same for C.W. Orr. Head was absorbed by the British song of which he wrote hundreds. He made the occasional foray into intimate chamber music. There are three pieces for oboe and piano as well as the trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. For Lady Barbirolli and Valda Aveling he wrote this Siciliana. This is an aristocratic piece where beauty drops in honeyed slowness and where the music coasts close to cinematic sentimentality (Nino Rota). Head makes cleverly affecting use of the guitar sonority of the harpsichord in the work’s final bars. Dodgson is a product of the RCM rather than Head's RAM. His wife is Jane Clark the harpsichordist. Dodgson's instrument is the French Horn rather than the oboe. His little four-movement suite was again written for the Barbirolli-Aveling Duo. The guitar and the neo-classical world of Rodrigo can be heard in the Prelude. This is followed by the blithe but slightly astringent Ground. The Canzonet is drawn magnetically to English lyrical voices like Finzi and Howells but, with Dodgson, there is that last reserve which somehow magnifies the effect. A skipping Dance recalls the finale of Malcolm Arnold's gorgeous first Oboe Concerto.

Maconchy had something of a mission with the oboe. There's the 1932 Oboe Quintet which was a prize-winner in the Daily Telegraph chamber music competition of that year. This was recorded on 78s by Helen Gaskell and has recently been reissued on Dutton (see review). It is heard on Oboe Classics CC2009 'An English Renaissance' (see review). The Oboe Quartet dating from circa 1972 is on the Oboe Classics collection of Janet Craxton radio recordings on CC2011 (see review).

These little Bagatelles were again composed specifically for the Barbirolli/Aveling Duo and for the same Purcell Room concert where all three were premiered in October 1972. They are not avant-garde in the sense that Elizabeth Lutyens' Driving Out the Death is; to be heard on that indispensable Janet Craxton collection with other oboe chamber works by Berkeley, Stoker, Routh and Maconchy CC2011. These are bagatelles only in the sense that they are short: between two minutes and three minutes twenty five seconds. The first is deliberate and pugnacious, the second probing, chilly-dank and even Gothic though it relaxes for a melancholy reveille at 1:07 and the final panel is an angular hop-skipping dance. The idiom has more to do with Bartók than her teacher Vaughan Williams. This strong sense of self-identity was apparent from the 1932 Oboe Quintet onwards and across her great cycle of string quartets (now on Regis).

The 1972 works, quite naturally, carry the mark of passing time and reflect trace elements of the avant-gardiste 1960s and 1970s. Gordon Jacob's lovely 1963 work shows no such inclination. It too was written for the Barbirolli-Aveling Duo. His Sonatina carols the English muse. It was written at the end of a sustained high noon for his works from the 1920s to the end of the 1950s. The 1960s pushed his name off broadcast schedules and concert programmes. He simply adapted and shifted his production to writing music for amateurs, children and students. His long list of works include two concertos for oboe and strings the first of which was written for Lady Barbirolli. There are also Seven Bagatelles, Ten Little Studies and a Rhapsody for cor anglais and strings. The adagio of the Sonatina sings of sun-soaked summers and yellow corn fields, the heat-haze and the buzzing of insects. The allegro giocoso dances lightly on its toes. Its swoops and dives again recall Malcolm Arnold's First Oboe Concerto. The lento alla sarabanda reminded me strongly of Thomas Wilson's affecting music for the BBC Scotland TV’s Lewis Grassic Gibbon adaptation: Cloud Howe - nursing the desolate and the lonely. The final allegro molto vivace is a romp for both players which at 00.40 relaxes into another of those dazzling summer pasture songs before finding its feet for that music-hall romp of a home-run. The piece ends with a modest throwaway gesture that is both touching and lyrically effective.

The notes are typically full and are written from the inside by Ifeka and May.

No enthusiast of the oboe can afford to be without this collection. This is music-making of the highest order.

Rob Barnett




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