Airs, Blues And Dances
James Turnbull explores rich and varied repertoire of the past thirty years, showcasing the versatility of writing for the oboe in solo repertoire. “It is the contrast between compositions that fascinate me most about the music we recorded.”
The recital disc opens with Tippett’s autumnal prelude, arranged for oboe and piano by Meirion Bowen, the composer’s personal assistant and biographer.
Richard Rodney Bennett remained fascinated by John Playford’s country dances, setting them for a variety of instruments. There’s a folk music link with Jonathan Dove’s Music for a Lovelorn Lenanshee, which takes inspiration from the popular song ‘My Lagan Love’ from County Donegal, and first published in 1904 and popularized by John McCormack
Retaining a folk connection, Judith Weir’s Mountain Airs, scored for flute, oboe and clarinet, use the music of two traditional Scottish melodies, each freely adapted.
The evocative colours of Anthony Powers’ In Shadow are a sound-world away, where amongst other effects, he creates myriad colours from the marriage of piano pedal notes and high-lying melodic lines
Charlotte Bray’s Late Snow for solo oboe was inspired by M.R. Peacocke’s eponymous poem, a striking expression of the transition from life to death and beyond.
David Matthews’ Montana Taylor’s Blues is named for Arthur ‘Montana’ Taylor , whose high-octane boogie-woogie and inventive blues playing attracted a cult following among jazz fans in the 1940s. Matthews says: “I was particularly struck by the poignant harmony which suggested that Taylor must have heard some classical music – Schubert? – during his itinerant life.”
The oboe’s expressive capabilities are probed and projected in Three Miniatures by Helen Grime
Joseph Phibbs’ Vocalise, created in 2005, is conditioned by the effortless simplicity of the miniature work’s oboe melody and enhanced by the shimmering beauty of its piano part.
- Sleeve Notes
Folksong and popular melodies flowed naturally into Michael Tippett’s often complex musical language. In 1958 he created a cantata to mark the centenary of Badminton School, weaving existing tunes into the fabric of a piece that tested and no doubt enhanced the skills of its young female performers. The Crown of the Year includes a quartet of instrumental preludes representing the four seasons. Prelude: Autumn includes fragments of the German children’s round, ‘O wie wohl ist mir am Abend’, which emerges clearly in the movement’s central triple-time section. Tippett’s autumnal prelude was arranged for oboe and piano by Meirion Bowen, the composer’s personal assistant and biographer, and first performed by Nicholas Daniel and Julius Drake in December 1991.
Among printed sources of English folk dance, John Playford’s The Dancing Master stands proud in terms of its scope and influence. The anthology, first published in London in 1651 towards the end of the English Civil War, progressed through eighteen editions and was supplemented long after its originator’s death by two additional volumes. The vogue for country dances arose at a time of instability and upheaval and endured as people flocked away from rural poverty towards the promise of work in fast-expanding towns and cities, London chief among them. Their stock rose again after Cecil Sharp published The Country Dance Book in 1909, introducing new audiences to many Playford tunes.
Richard Rodney Bennett, whose broad musical tastes remained open to the English pastoral tradition, discovered Playford’s country dances in 2000 and was entranced by their striking melodic invention. He set six of them for violin and piano before creating Four Country Dances for oboe or soprano saxophone and piano. Other settings soon followed. “I keep transcribing the ‘Playford Country Dances’ with different combinations,” he observed. “I can’t leave them alone, I’m so fascinated by them.” Bennett catches the wistful quality of A New Dance, deepening its introspective mood through a lyrical piano part charged with hypnotic repetitions and sustained, bell-like harmonies. Lady Day, named for the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (25 March), the official start of the year in England until 1751, engenders a mood of celebration, light of heart and joyful in spirit. Bennett’s setting of The Mulberry Garden underlines his deep knowledge of early twentieth-century English song and its rich harmonic idioms. Nobody’s Jig flows like an English chalk stream after a heavy shower, full of energy yet never threatening, even when the oboe climbs high in its register as the dance draws to a close.
Arabesque was written within the span of two days in New York City in the summer of 1992. Bennett’s writing for oboe solo is distinguished by its improvisatory feel, moments of puckishness and overall apprehension of beauty. The work’s meandering chromaticism is contained within clearly defined tonal boundaries, articulated by the strategic appearance of several sustained notes. Although the piece makes considerable demands on the player’s stamina, its virtuosity is harnessed to the creation of drama rather than the soloist’s ego.
Poetry and song played a prominent role in cultivating Irish national identity around turn of the twentieth century. The popular song ‘My Lagan Love’ grew out of the Irish Revival, its traditional melody collected in County Donegal and harmonised by Herbert Hughes and adapted to English words by the Belfast-born poet Joseph Campbell. It was first published in 1904 as one of the Songs of Uladh and proved a commercial success six years later after it was recorded by John McCormack. Campbell’s lyrics evoke the mythical Lenanshee, a fairy-lover present in Celtic folklore, known as muse to ordinary mortals. Jonathan Dove turned to ‘My Lagan Love’ to discover the source and origin of his Music for a Lovelorn Lenanshee. The work, commissioned by the Park Lane Group and first performed at the Purcell Room in January 1994, is infused throughout with traces of the song’s melody. “It is presented fairly explicitly at the beginning and the end; in the middle, it is spun into a kind of jig, and then into another dance,” notes the composer. “The second verse of the song includes the lines ‘There on the cricket’s singing stone/She spares the bogwood fire,’ and that is where I imagine the music being played.”
Ancient myth and archetype have shaped much of Judith Weir’s work, often conveyed in modern musical idioms that at once sound timeless. Her Mountain Airs, scored for flute, oboe and clarinet in A, use the music of two traditional Scottish melodies, each freely adapted. The short work’s three sections collectively amount to more than the sum of their parts. Mountain Airs was written for and first performed by the British ensemble Sounds Positive in 1988.
The six short movements of In Shadow offer a study in textural contrasts and tonal shading. Anthony Powers created the work in November 1989 in response to a commission from the Park Lane Group. His poetic use of sound and nuance of expression invite the listener to meditate on the constantly changing relationship between oboe and piano, the transient nature of their music, and the intricacy of their interplay. While In Shadow 2 generates myriad colours from the marriage of piano pedal notes and high-lying melodic lines, its successor presents oboe and piano as two estranged actors at work on a broad stage, their monologues overlapping but rarely agreeing. In Shadow 4 is imbued with what the composer terms ‘furtive’ qualities; the all-too-brief In Shadow 5, meanwhile, belongs to his related yet contrasting category of ‘elegiac’ movements. The work’s final movement unfolds as a ritual act, transcending clock time with its contemplative blend of movement, stasis and silence.
Charlotte Bray studied composition with Joe Cutler at Birmingham Conservatoire and Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Royal College of Music. She has grown in stature over the past decade to emerge as one of the finest British composers of her generation, recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2010 and winner of the 2014 Lili Boulanger Prize. Bray’s Late Snow for solo oboe, first performed at the Royal College of Music in 2010, was inspired by M.R. Peacocke’s eponymous poem, a striking expression of the transition from life to death and beyond. The work’s first movement adheres to the melodic contours of Peacocke’s verse, its music described by Bray as “a song without words, or at least with the words subdued”. The composer thereafter develops her material freely out of the sound of fragments of the poet’s text, distilling the melancholy energy of her ‘…shrinking away like snow’ into the score’s central movement and the restless agitation of ‘And suddenly your absence…’ into its final movement.
Montana Taylor's Blues began life as the fourth movement of David Matthews’ Oboe Concerto (1991-2). The composer subsequently made two arrangements of the movement, the first for oboe and piano. The work is named for Arthur ‘Montana’ Taylor, whose high-octane boogie-woogie and inventive blues playing attracted a cult following among jazz fans in the 1940s. While his authoritative mastery of the barrelhouse style, a throwback to music made in the bar rooms of America’s western frontier, placed Taylor in a class apart, his career was blighted by financial setbacks and ended in obscurity. Taylor’s recordings, however, went on to influence generations of musicians, Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones and David Matthews among them. Montana Taylor's Blues, according to its composer, “is based on a piano blues of his which I heard on the radio and which has haunted me ever since. I was particularly struck by the poignant harmony which suggested that Taylor must have heard some classical music – Schubert? – during his itinerant life.” Matthews creates a dream-like evocation of Taylor’s blues, embellishing the piano’s pattern of lilting chords with a fluid and at times neurotic oboe solo. The stability of the blues structure is undermined by an abrupt shift into unfamiliar territory, prefaced by silence and low piano chords and touched by echoes of an exotic concert song, before Montana Taylor’s blues returns once more in the form of a piano postlude.
The oboe’s expressive capabilities are probed and projected in Three Miniatures. Helen Grime wrote the work in 2005 in response to a request from her friend and supporter, the pianist and conductor Peter Evans, drawing on her long experience as an oboist to create three distinct territories of invention. The first miniature eases the oboe into its upper register, exploiting soft-edged harmonics in its initial solo and thereafter stepping into a high-lying dialogue with the piano. Grime’s ear for colour and contrast remains alert throughout the second miniature, where the movement’s metrical shifts and unpredictable accent patterns are gradually offset by long, lyrical oboe lines. The final miniature presents a song without words, simple yet rich in expression, voiced at first by the oboe above complex piano polyphony before arising on oboe alone. The two instruments are reunited in a coda of ineffable beauty.
Shadows of forgotten ancestors appear to pass over the surface of Little Missenden Calm. John Tavener wrote the piece for the Little Missenden Festival in response to an invitation from his close friend Pat Harrison. It was first performed by the Endymion Ensemble in Little Missenden Parish Church in October 1984. Each voice in Tavener’s chosen wind quartet combines to enact a sacred ritual, with bassoon and oboe addressing the outer limits of the cosmos with a protracted melody stated in double octaves and the independent clarinet and horn evoking the sonority and solemnity of early medieval organum.
Chamber music lies at the heart of Joseph Phibbs’ output, apt for a composer with antennae finely tuned to subtle variations of timbre and texture. Vocalise, created in 2005, is conditioned by the effortless simplicity of the miniature work’s oboe melody and enhanced by the shimmering beauty of its piano part, marked meccanico e delicate (‘mechanical and delicate’) at the outset. The wistful mood intensifies through a central dialogue between piano and oboe and resolves into a sense of optimism as the piece moves towards its conclusion.
- Press Reviews
"This is a beautifully played, interestingly programmed showcase of the oboe as a recital instrument."
- BBC Music Magazine
"Oboist James Turnbull and his collaborators, pianist Libby Burgess and the Ensemble Perpetuo, handle the many colours and technical challenges with ease and fluency."
"Turnbull is now as a string proponent of contemporary music ... and is obviously comfortable in each of these dramatically different works."
"In Turnbull's hands, the music dances and turns with graceful ease ... Turnbull manages the many technical challenges easily and convincingly."
- American Record Guide
"I thoroughly recommend any oboist to explore [Montana Taylor's Blues' by David Matthews] as long as you have an exciting top A flat, as James Turnbull does."
"James Turnbull, producer Patrick Allen and the anonymous engineer have all contrived to use the hall's natural acoustic [of Champs Hill] to create a breadth of sound, while also maintaining an immediacy from both oboe and piano."
"Turnbull has all the things an oboe soloist needs - technique, sound quality, stamina - but throughout this CD it is his commitment that shines through; he looks to the music for his inspiration."
"The critic Stephen Johnson has written in the BBC Music Magazine about one of my oboe teachers, Janet Craxton: 'Far from having one expressive style which she applies to more of less everything, Craxton approaches each piece on its own terms: coaxing out poetry here, scooping deep into the notes and drawing up gold the next.' I am happy to extend this compliment to James Turnbull."
- Jeremy Palmer, Double Reed News
"...this new release is in every way as marvellous as the previous one."
"Turnbull continues his fascinating exploration of the British oboe literature with more turns along some less often explored pathways..."
"Turnbull's rich, pliant tone, and exquisite sense of line and attack..."
"...pianist Libby Burgess again joins the soloist to create the magical backdrop for his instrumental equivalent of song."
"The recording benefits from the gently supportive acoustic of [Champs Hill] ... Everything about this recital is a delight. Readers who have chosen to read the full endorsement before deciding are now warmly encouraged to hear this gem."
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