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Singing Oboe Egil HOVLAND (1924-2013) Cantus VIII, for oboe and string quartet, Op 129 (1986) [11:51] Kjell HABBESTAD (b 1955)
Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra, op 89 (2011) [31:39] Johan KVANDAL (1919-1999)
Concerto for Oboe and String Orchestra, Op 46 (1977) [20:29] Bob THIELE (1922-1996)/George David WEISS (1921-2010)
What a Wonderful World (arr. Westby) [2:30]
Trygve Aarvik (oboe)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Ingvar Bergby
rec. 2018, NRK Concert Hall, Oslo, Norway LAWO CLASSICS LWC1186 [66:29]
Collections of unusual oboe concertante fare are few and far between so it’s good to have this new disc of contemporary Norwegian examples from Lawo Classics. It contains a couple of bona fide concertos (one with full orchestra, one, as is perhaps more customary for the oboe, with strings) plus a work which is effectively an oboe quintet; a rather saccharine arrangement of Louis Armstrong’s 1967 hit ‘What a Wonderful World’ acts as an encore. It’s very ‘nice’, but I hope I’m displaying neither pomposity nor elitism when I state that it really doesn’t belong here.
Egil Hovland is well represented in the catalogue on labels associated with his homeland but his name is less familiar outside of Norway. His Cantus VIII for oboe and string quartet is a tautly constructed affair which covers a lot of ground in its eleven minutes. The oboe theme unfolds gradually against a pulsing, pizzicato backdrop in the first movement, in time conveying a rather exotic, oriental flavour. Its central section is more dramatic and Hovland’s approachable serialism suggests a kind of Nordic Frank Martin. In the central panel melodic ideas are pitted against a rocking motion in the strings and after a sprightly mini-cadenza and some rather strident, dense counterpoint a memorable little tune emerges although Hovland darkens the mood towards its close with a melancholy episode for the solo violin. The finale is diatonic and to the point, and finally reveals the hymn-tune which was implied in the preceding movements. At no stage does Hovland labour the point in this tightly argued work. The Cantus is pleasantly diverting and deftly played by Trygve Aarvik and a quartet seemingly drawn from the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. While the recording is vivid, Lawo’s sound seems a little dry.
This is more of a problem in the most ambitious offering here, the concerto by Kjell Habbestad. This features a much larger orchestra whose loudest contributions present real challenges to the Lawo engineers, especially in terms of enabling the soloist to be heard. Although I have never encountered his music before, Hebbestad is no stranger to his nation’s record companies. There are a few examples on Lawo Classics, one of which is Un rêve Norvégien for saxophone and orchestra which Rob Barnett reviewed last year. The opening movement of his half hour oboe concerto is marked Allegro affanoso, a most unusual instruction which means ‘gasping’ or ‘exhausted’. The introduction certainly feels a little claustrophobic, and the orchestral material appears rather diffuse, with lots of action for the wind and brass. At first the writing seems skilfully tiered, allowing the oboist to make his presence felt. Hebbestad employs a reasonably accessible modern language, with intricate writing for the soloist and including some elaborate washes of tuned percussion. However as the movement moved towards its rather bombastic conclusion I began to feel that the material was too fragmentary and that the recorded sound might have benefitted from a bit more air around the instruments.
This sense of disjointedness seems to be maintained at the outset of the succeeding Adagio profondo but the work settles in due course and begins to cohere. There are some florid passages for the orchestral woodwind but balance problems re-emerge when overloud brass enter the fray. A long, inscrutable oboe cadenza goes around the houses before strings and timpani presage an ominous episode from which the battling soloist strives to extricate himself. The tiny scherzo offers a glimmer of welcome light relief before a busy finale incorporates loud brass and percussion fanfares which seem somewhat impolite in the context of an oboe concerto. At 2:00 the soloist presents what seems like an important theme which is developed by the orchestra in what turns into a section of real lucidity. Bernsteinesque textures collide with reflective passages for the oboe and delightful dancing figures before the work ends with a question mark.
To be frank I found Hebbestad’s concerto a bit cumbersome and somewhat over-written, especially given the concision that characterises the couplings on this disc. The oboe writing is certainly taxing and while Trygve Aarvik seems to make light work of his demanding part he is really not helped sufficiently by the Lawo engineers – there are a number of moments when he is overwhelmed by the big orchestra; the overworked brass section are the main culprits. It may well be that Hebbestad’s often ambitious writing (frequently involving novel instrumental combinations) is just too difficult to tame.
More successful is Johan Kvandal’s oboe concerto with the lean-sounding strings of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. It follows a more familiar neo-classical blueprint and incorporates a standard fast-slow-fast three movement design. The opening involves a poised call and response figure, elegant and cool. The argument soon takes a darker turn – there are parallels with Vagn Holmboe in the strategies Kvandal employs to vary and develop his material. The music is never twee, it’s perfectly assured and knows exactly where it’s going. The conclusion is delightfully unassuming – a sure sign of a skilled, grounded practitioner. The central Adagio proffers a neat contrast, a terse introduction which yields to a folk-like, even plaintive theme. If the solo writing in the first movement requires nimbleness and agility, that in the slow movement offers Trygve Aarvik plenty of scope to display sensitivity and expressivity. The second half of the panel is initially more ambiguous before it takes a more decisively serious turn. The finale restores the brighter countenance of the concerto’s opening, with a deliciously elfin folk-like theme emerging from the spring-loaded neo-classical rhythms. It’s a resilient, memorable tune and subsequent material seems to derive from it most organically. At 4:57 a lightly accompanied cadenza leads to a final re-statement of the theme before the full body of strings sees the work through to its conclusion. Kvandal’s concerto pulls up no great trees but in my view there are far less accomplished (and agreeable) examples of the genre in the repertoire; it is expertly crafted and splendidly realised by Aarvik and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. In every way (including the sound) it is the best thing on this disc.
The choice of encore is certainly curious; in the final analysis it’s hardly offensive and in any case listeners who have no desire to reverse the mood projected by a trio of substantial, serious pieces can vote with their forefingers (and their remotes). The disc is probably not a ‘must have’ but oboephiles and lovers of Nordic repertoire are unlikely to feel short-changed, regardless of my caveats.