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The English Oboe: Rediscovered
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Oboe Sonata in C, Op. 100 (1958) [13:34]
Edward LONGSTAFF (b. 1965)
Aegeus (1996) [8:21]
Thomas Attwood WALMISLEY (1814-1856)
Sonatina No. 1 (1847) [8:49]
John CASKEN (b. 1949)
Amethyst Deceiver for Solo Oboe (2009) [7:16]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Terzetto for Flute, Oboe and Viola (1925) [11:35]
Michael BERKELEY (b. 1948)
Three Moods for Unaccompanied Oboe (1978) [10:10]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Six Studies in English Folksong for Cor Anglais and Piano (1926) [8:39]
James Turnbull (oboe/cor anglais), Libby Burgess (piano), Matthew Featherstone (flute), Dan Shilladay (viola)
rec. 26-29 March 2012, Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex. DDD

I wish that more record companies would dare to mix the familiar with the not so familiar, as we find on this superb new disc. The programme here is unusually stimulating, with its juxtaposition of old and new. Furthermore, this CD is framed by arguably the finest ever recorded versions of Rubbra’s magnificent Sonata and Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong.
The Rubbra Oboe Sonata is unquestionably one of his finest chamber works and is worthy to rank alongside his Second Violin Sonata. This is quite an elusive work and can be difficult to pull off in performance. Melinda Maxwell rather misses the mark in her rival Dutton version (Dutton CDLX 7106) and the result is disappointingly bland and uninvolving. Compare, for example, the opening minute of her performance with the haunting, dream-like interpretation of James Turnbull and it is a little like turning from a monochrome sketch to viewing a fully finished watercolour. The ebb and flow of the first movement is absolutely right in this new version and the slow movement has tremendous nobility. The quixotic finale is also beautifully handled by both players, with Libby Burgess doing full justice to the taxing piano writing. I have little doubt that this new performance will become the benchmark recording.
Edward Longstaff’s Aegeus has great strength of purpose and a compelling sense of atmosphere. This is powerful music which avoids the temptation to indulge in extended playing techniques and achieves a feeling of timelessness as a result. This seems eminently appropriate considering the classical inspiration of the piece. It was named after the father of the Greek hero Theseus. I would like to encounter more of this intriguing composer’s music.
The music of Thomas Attwood Walmisley was previously unknown to me. His Sonatina No. 1 is attractive and is given a gorgeous performance here. The piece is most charming and occasionally sounds like Mendelssohn and Schumann. The first movement is beautifully phrased by James Turnbull and the following Allegro is nicely handled. It might have been better if the two movements had been given different track numbers, but this is a minor quibble.
An air of mischief hangs over John Casken’s Amethyst Deceiver for solo oboe. The title refers to a species of mushroom, which has a particularly intense flavour. Although safe to eat, it has a strong resemblance to another type of mushroom which is poisonous, hence the name “deceiver”. Casken has already shown himself to be a master at writing for oboe in his bewitching Masque for Oboe, Two Horns and Strings (1982), which is, sadly, still unrecorded. This new piece is equally well written and is a splendid example of a contemporary showpiece employing new techniques but in ways that are always musical. There is nothing here that would frighten away the more traditional listener and much that would inspire them. Perhaps this exciting new work will prompt a recording of the above-mentioned Masque, which is one of Casken’s most individual and affecting scores.
Holst’s Terzetto for Flute, Oboe and Viola is certainly not immediately accessible but repeated hearings reveal a work with a distinctively subtle atmosphere. Some listeners may wonder if the composer’s decision to maintain three different keys simultaneously throughout becomes a touch wearisome at times - a bit like too much blue on a painter’s canvas - but it is an intriguingly strange work all the same. The performance is very well judged.
Michael Berkeley’s Three Moods for Unaccompanied Oboe are attractive and involving miniatures. These are relatively early pieces and are fresh in inspiration. The performance here is beyond criticism.
Finally, we are offered the Vaughan Williams Six Studies in a truly exemplary performance. Although the piece was originally conceived for cello and piano, it now exists in a number of different versions. The choice of cor anglais here is ideal. The work sounds better on this instrument than on the clarinet. Emma Johnson recorded it on ASV in a sensitive rendition, but this newcomer surpasses that fine account. The Lento (Track 15) is particularly affecting and shows Vaughan Williams’ ability to express a great deal in the shortest of time periods. This new account of the Six Studies is unlikely to be beaten. 

The recorded sound is excellent throughout, offering both clarity and warmth. The booklet notes by Malcolm MacDonald are extremely interesting and informative.
This is a splendid release.
David Jennings   

Vaughan Williams review index

Rubbra discography & review index