This album showcases the talents of the young oboist Emily Pailthorpe in three classic British works for the oboe, one of them specially written for her and the other recreated for her in a new transcription.
Paul Patterson is generally considered one of the most versatile composers of his generation. Born in 1947, he studied trombone and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, the latter under Richard Rodney Bennett, and was himself Head of Composition and Contemporary Music there for many years before becoming the Academy’s Manson Professor of Composition in 1997. A skilled craftsman, Patterson has demonstrated his virtuosity in a range of styles and genres. He is an eclectic whose wide musical culture encompasses almost everything from orthodox serial techniques to electronics and the commercial scene. His music seems influenced by a number of composers, and he numbers both Hindemith and Lutoslawski among his early influences, as well as the English choral tradition.
Patterson’s Phoenix Concerto for oboe and string orchestra is among his most recent works, commissioned for Emily Pailthorpe by David Bowerman and given its world premiere by Emily at the International Double Reed Society Conference in Birmingham in 2009. As its title suggests, the concerto is inspired by the myth of the Phoenix, the powerful, exotic and beautiful bird of the Orient which is actually a fire spirit (accounting for its alternative name, the Firebird). Supposed to live in India or further East, but to visit Egypt at 500-year intervals, the Phoenix is known in various guises from Persian, Russian and Chinese legend and was first described in Western literature by Herodotus and Ovid. Fabled to live up to 1000 years, according to legend at the end of its life it builds a nest of twigs that then catch fire, immolating the Phoenix, which is reduced to ashes – out of which a new young Phoenix arises. In a sense the bird is immortal, periodically dying and renewing itself from its own ashes. It is also said to have an extremely beautiful repertoire of songs and cries: an obvious startingpoint for Patterson’s concerto. As the composer has written: ‘The fire, passion and power of the Phoenix are very present in the outer movements of this piece, with the last movement filled with mesmerising dance-rhythms. The oboe’s unparalleled ability to recreate the feel of exotic birdsong is showcased in the opening cadenza and central slow movement’.
There are three movements in the orthodox fast-slow-fast pattern, but the concerto begins with a brief cadenza accompanied only by soft string chords, establishing both the ‘oriental’ exoticism and the capricious bird-like nature of the oboe’s part. After this the main body of the movement sets off immediately in a brisk, urgent Allegro vivace: agile, swift-winged music with a somewhat neoclassical air, not so much powered by a theme as by a collection of small but resourcefully developed rhythmic motifs, of which the oboe’s insistent anapestic figure, a call of two semiquavers and a quaver, is perhaps the most important. The dialogue between soloist and orchestra, the contrapuntal arguments within the strings, and the effective use of pizzicato and arco sonorities are all noteworthy. The movement is well launched before the oboe finally introduces a calmer, long-breathed espressivo melody, but this is more like an episode than a second subject. The agile vivace music soon takes over again, but the textures thin out and the mood becomes more mysterious, coming to rest on the bottom E of the cellos and double bass. From here the motion is reborn (like the Phoenix from its ashes?) in rising figures from the strings and a song of renewed vigour from the oboe, becoming ever more energetic and complex and leading to a second, highly virtuosic cadenza that eventually calms the mood and leads smoothly into the Tranquillo second movement.
Here a solo viola propounds a melancholy theme, to which the oboe responds, over a rhythmic pizzicato background, with sinuously exotic melodies and arabesques. There is a tension in this movement between the passages of florid decoration and more static, recitative-like writing, and also a subtle blend of the oboe’s tones with various solo string instruments. The overall effect is of a kind of languorous, fantastic nocturne, the oboe obviously evoking the fabulous bird singing in the heat of the bejewelled, tropical night. Although the movement essentially unfolds rhapsodically, towards the end there is a return to the melodic materials and lazy rhythms of the opening section, now played half pizzicato and half col legno.
The Finale, which begins più mosso but quickly accelerates to Allegro molto, returns to some extent to the materials of the first movement, but in varied form. The anapestic figure has become a quick, upward-leaping motif, all-pervasive in some sections. Here again there is a cadenza before the movement gets properly going; when it does so it proves to be an ebullient, highly rhythmic piece of several themes, in frequentlychanging metres with louche syncopations and jazzy grace-notes: clearly a dance of virtuosic display. Perhaps the flames traditionally associated with the Phoenix are suggested in the flickering figurations and coruscating runs. Exciting and swift-moving, the fun becomes fast and furious right up to the oboe’s final high G and cadenza-like flourish, and the strings’ abrupt concluding cadence onto a slap-pizzicato unison C. After this striking contemporary concerto, the central work on this CD is what is probably the best-known of all British oboe concertos. Ralph Vaughan Williams
composed his Concerto in A minor for oboe and strings during 1944 as a tribute to the great oboist Léon Goossens, and Goossens gave the premiere in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool on 30 September of that year with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent. Vaughan Williams clearly responded intensely to the traditional role of the oboe as a bucolic instrument, harking back to the shepherd’s reed pipe, and the result is one of his most piercing evocations of pastoral serenity and occasional melancholy, in the tradition of such previous works as The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra and the viola suite Flos Campi. Apparently the Finale was originally sketched as a scherzo movement for his Fifth Symphony, inspired by John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and itself the most serene of his symphonic series. Though superficially a work of pastoral poetry, there are undercurrents to the music that tell us this concerto was composed in wartime. The choice of tonality (there is always a touch of severity about A minor) should show us that not all is serene contentment in this wonderfully melodious work.
The first movement is labelled explicitly Rondo Pastorale. It opens and closes with a frankly ‘pastoral’ melody in A minor, first from the soloist and then from the strings, that encloses a short accompanied cadenza and a dancing theme in G major. The use of the minor mode, always more flexible than the major and here of course made yet more fluid by Vaughan Williams’ habitual modal colouring, frequently allows the music to divert into colder or more sombre harmonies, and then emerge, as if the melodies are moving through a continual play of light and shade. The rondo’s two subsidiary episodes, separated by a brief return of the pastoral refrain, introduce respectively a rhythmically based idea in A major and a thoughtful one in F minor suggesting a state of solitude: one thinks of Andrew Marvell’s line about becoming ‘a green thought in a green shade’. The movement closes with a series of florid cadential runs above sustained string chords, elaborating the essence of the rondo theme and retreating, it seems, into the stillness of the distant landscape.
The second movement is a Minuet, not so much archaic as again bucolic, high-stepping and staccato, with some echoes of the actual Scherzo of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony and rising to a full-hearted climax. For trio he writes a brief Musette, the oboe subtly suggesting a bagpipe’s chanter. The Finale, which is also titled ‘Scherzo’, begins in E minor in an agitated, quick-moving vein, as if a bird is darting anxiously between nest and hedgerow. This voluble music throws out several singing themes as it flutters on its way – and also a plaintive birdsong-like figure, two falling notes preceded by a grace-note – before the strings grandly introduce a full-hearted waltz tune that forms the first of two trios in this scherzo-like movement. After a return of the chattering, fluttering scherzo music, which turns sinister at times, the movement suddenly slows for the second trio, Doppio più lento: a sudden intense moment of rapture, turning two of the bird-like themes into a longer-breathed melody encapsulating a melancholic vision and carrying an unexpected weight of emotion. The oboe, unaccompanied, leads into a modified reprise of the scherzo music, and then the waltz theme returns, now more elegiac in feeling. A passionately lyrical Lento seems to be a slow epilogue to the proceedings, but the oboe, unaccompanied, tries to get the scherzo back in motion. Nobody joins it, however, so the final bars are a contented agreement to end in the peaceful region that the concerto has finally gained. A year before Vaughan Williams wrote his concerto for Léon Goossens, his friend and former pupil Herbert Howells had also written an important piece for the great oboe player: his Sonata for Oboe and Piano, completed on 27 August 1942. Like the Vaughan Williams, this is centred around the key of A. But the two works had very different fates. While Vaughan Williams’ concerto was soon performed, published, and entered the small repertoire of oboe concertos, Howells’ sonata remained unknown and in manuscript for the next 40 years. It was only after the composer’s death in 1982 that it came to light and was premiered and published. (It received its world premiere, by Sarah Francis and Peter Dickinson, at the Cheltenham International Festival on 9 July 1984.) In late life Goossens recalled having had ‘serious reservations about the structure of the piece’ and said that after discussion Howells (who was perennially selfcritical – he suppressed some of his most important orchestral works) took the manuscript away, saying he would ‘have another go at it’. This neglect was certainly unfortunate, for it is one of Howells’ finest instrumental works, laid out on a large scale with utterly characteristicthematic material. It’s possible that Goossens was hesitant about the sonata because much of the piano writing is rather orchestral in character: an observation that has given rise to the new arrangement by Benjamin Wallfisch for oboe, string orchestra and harp recorded for the first time on this CD. In 1938 Howells had completed his choral masterpiece, the Hymnus Paradisi, a reaction to the death of his son Michael – perhaps the crucial personal catastrophe of the composer’s life. Though he wrote much church music in the following years the Oboe Sonata was his only significant chamber work from this period, and it has an uneasy, elegiac quality that may relate once more to Howells’ own loss as well as to the wartime atmosphere in which it was created. Again there is the attempt to find solace in pastoral, but the Sonata is more complex and conflicted than the Vaughan Williams concerto. This is a work of long expressive melodic lines entwined in bittersweet harmonies, whose evocative qualities are if anything enhanced by the arrangement for strings and harp.
There are four movements, the last acting as an Epilogue to the other three. The darkly undulating theme in the strings with which the Placido, teneramente, ma con moto first movement begins is to prove central to the whole work’s expressive profile. The oboe takes it up, already in varied form. A quicker, more agitated theme moves the music on more quickly, the atmosphere developing into a stormy nature-meditation, as if a wind is soughing among the trees. A determined but rather grim march-character, pesante, drives the movement towards a climax before it relaxes back towards the slower opening theme, its profile further varied as it subsides on low strings. Without a break the Lento slow movement, in a modal B major, opens with sustained chords in the strings that introduce a new, bittersweet folksong-like melody on the oboe. This sets the stage for a particularly beautiful nature-meditation in Howells’ ripest vein. With a dreamlike shift to C major, a new form of the opening theme of the first movement returns in the movement’s rather quicker middle section, before a varied reprise of the folk-like tune and a peaceful dying-away into silence. The agile, dancing music of the scherzando third movement makes it a real virtuoso test for the soloist. The mood is bracing and combative, and one motif seems to be a literal quote from Howells’ magnificent Concerto for String Orchestra, another work from 1938 that was partly inspired by the death of his son. Though the time-signatures change fairly frequently, they settle down to an irregular 7/8 metre for the first of two trios, here over pizzicato strings. The oboe’s tune is a variant of the scherzo theme, and the music also harks back to the second theme of the first movement. A brioso development of the scherzo music leads – via a wild, cadenza-like outburst from the soloist – to a second 7/8 episode, bringing back the theme of the Lento movement in much more assertive and determined fashion. A true accompanied cadenza, both virtuosic and melancholic, leads without a break into the Epilogue, which is marked Tranquillo, mesto, ma con moto. Reminiscences of all three preceding movements form the basis of this exquisite and deeply elegiac signing-off, in music that eventually rises to a vanishing point of serene evanescence.
Notes (c) Malcolm MacDonald