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Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
Three Romances for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94 (1849) [14:33]
David LUDWIG (b.1972)
Pleiades: Seven Microludes for Oboe and Piano (2005) [16:52]
Francis POULENC (1899–1963)
Sonata for Oboe and Piano, FP 185 (1962) [17:12]
Pavel HAAS (1899–1944)
Suite for Oboe and Piano, Op. 17 (1939) [16:06]
Katherine Needleman (oboe)
Jennifer Lim (piano)
rec. 30 September, 2-3 October 2014, Mendelssohn-Saal, Gewandhaus Leipzig, Germany
GENUIN GEN16407 [64:53]

It is rare for European record companies to issue recordings featuring American oboists, so it was a big surprise to me when I saw American oboist Katherine Needleman, principal with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, appearing on an oboe recital disc on the Genuin label.

The Three Romances for Oboe and Piano Op. 94 by Robert Schumann are the only works for oboe from the pen of a major composer throughout the Romantic period. The writing is not idiomatic – Schumann seems to have been ignorant of oboists’ problems with breathing and endurance. As a result, the Romance No.2, with the oboe playing almost non-stop throughout, becomes very difficult to perform. Katherine Needleman applies lots of tempo modifications in the Romance No.1. In fact, very few bars do not have pushing and pulling of the beats. The flow of the music is compromised as a result. The sfp and fp markings, integral to the piece, are by and large not discernable in this performance, although Ms. Needleman does produce a couple of well-executed diminuendi and pianissimi. The coda lacks the tension it needs – Ms. Needleman’s pausing after each of the two diminished fifth leaps sounds bizarre to me. The Romance No.2 is given a small ritard every two bars, which really kills this supposedly free-flowing song without words. Again, most of the fp and sfp markings are not discernable in the playing, and the central F# minor section lacks urgency and passion. In the Romance No.3, the quaver pickups are lengthened so much that they sound almost like crotchet pickups. Even though the fps are played, the crescendi are not. Some of the zurückhaltend and Im Tempo could have been handled more smoothly. The F major section is played far too slow so that the character of the music is totally changed. I wish Ms. Needleman had used the forked F fingering instead of the left F fingering for some of the Fs, because the numerous descending A-F-D sequences are marred by less-than-perfect finger coordination that results in glitches between notes.

David Ludwig is a personal friend of Katherine Needleman, and wrote Pleiades: Seven Microludes for Oboe and Piano on Ms. Needleman’s request. The Pleiades are seven sisters from Greek mythology. This is my first encounter with Pleiades. Calaeno – “the dark” is very slow, with long, sustained lines for the oboe, some of which are in the lowest register. Taygete – “the long-necked goose”, replete with fast staccato passages for the oboe, reminds me somewhat of the music of Alexandre Tansman with its rhythms and harmonies. Merope – “the eloquent” features some exquisite sustained soft playing. Electra – “the brightly shining” and Maia – “the mother” are another two slow movements with long legato lines for the oboe. Asterope – “the lightning” features virtuosic passage work for the oboe, and the concluding Halcyone – “the queen who wards off evil storms”, by David Ludwig’s admission, has a resonance with the devastation in New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina, which struck while he was in the middle of composing the piece. Pleiades is an interesting and useful addition to the oboe repertoire. Katherine Needleman copes with the technical challenges well and her soft playing is exquisite.

The Sonata for Oboe and Piano was Francis Poulenc’s last work. He did not live to give its premiere, which was ultimately given by oboist Pierre Pierlot and pianist Jacques Février, who also made the first recording of the work. Katherine Needleman played the opening statement of the Élégie at around the marked tempo of crotchet = 66. However, when Needleman and Lim enter after the fermata, the tempo is much slower – much too slow at around crotchet = 52, a fact not helped by the constant slowing down at the end of phrases and the oboist's tendency to lengthen the penultimate note of many phrases. Ms. Needleman seems not to have a big enough dynamic span to cover the range of ppp to ff Poulenc requested. In the second movement Scherzo, Needleman and Lim suddenly adopted a slower tempo at 6 bars after rehearsal number 3, where the music reads 2/4 = 6/8. I do not know if that is deliberate, but it sounds very odd. There is a further slowdown at rehearsal number 5 before the tempo picks up again, all of which was not asked for by Poulenc. The B section is taken far too slow, not obeying the composer’s marking of taking it twice as slow as the A section, and the music drags along as a result, though Ms. Needleman shows an outstanding command of pp playing to close the B section. On the return of the A section, Jennifer Lim plays wrong notes for bars 2 and 3, again at bars 11 and 12 and a few bars before the end of the movement. Her consistency in this regard makes me feel that perhaps all this is deliberate. In the finale, Ms. Needleman shows an outstanding ability in pp playing in the lowest register of the oboe. However, at two bars before rehearsal number 5 (Presser un peu)¸ she cuts off the dotted quavers early, instead of playing them right through. That really derails the build-up to the climactic high A at rehearsal number 5 and the tension is lost.

Czech Jewish composer Pavel Haas was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. His Suite for Oboe and Piano was written in 1939. As Needleman writes in the programme notes, Haas’ rage is apparent throughout. It is regrettable that the rage is not apparent in the playing. The opening really needs a stronger tone, more accented articulation and possibly a more pronounced vibrato. Throughout the piece, a stricter adherence to the notated rhythms would also have been welcome. Ms. Needleman’s tone and soft articulation are ill-suited to expressing the rage and terror inherent in this Suite. The very ending, marked ff with an accent on each note, needs to be stronger. A stronger vibrato would have partially compensated for the lack of volume in the oboe tone.

The Schumann Romances have been recorded by most of the top oboists. Léon Goossens, Heinz Holliger, Maurice Bourgue, Douglas Boyd, Hansjörg Schellenberger, Albrecht Mayer, Alexi Ogrintchouk and Christian Hommel have all made excellent recordings of it. For the Poulenc Oboe Sonata, my favourite renditions remain the three recordings by Maurice Bourgue, the last two of which are available on CD. The Haas Suite has been recorded by quite a few oboists over the past fifteen or so years. Get this album if you want David Ludwig’s Pleiades or if you are a fan of the American style of oboe playing.

Wai Kit Leung

MusicWeb International acknowledges the controversy created by this review, and the negative comments made therein.  We support our reviewers' right to be honest in their assessment of a recording, as long as they support their opinions; this has been done very thoroughly here. 



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