Picture used courtesy of the BBC
Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe), Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Maxim Rysanov (viola) and Kristina Blaumane (cello) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 October 2015
Listening link (open in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 18 November
In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. Alexei Ogrintchouk has recorded the Mozart, while available versions of the Haydn, Britten and Schubert pieces are also included.
What’s the music?
Attributed to Haydn: Divertissement in B flat, HII:B4 (not known) (10 minutes)
Britten: Phantasy Quartet, Op 2 (1932) (13 minutes)
Schubert: String Trio in B flat, D471 (1816) (8 minutes)
Mozart: Oboe Quartet in F, K370 (1781) (14 minutes)
What about the music?
Often in chamber music the strings get a lot of the glory, so it is good to report on a concert where the oboe is invited to take centre stage. The instrument is on occasion associated with sad music (Midsomer Murders use it a lot!) and it is perfect for autumnal listening, but it should be remembered that the oboe is also responsible for a lot of happy music too, as Mozart’s Oboe Quartet testifies.
This piece is a beauty, seemingly free of any constraints in its outer fast movements, while the inner slow movement is short yet poignant, set in the minor key. Mozart wrote it for the virtuoso Friedrich Ramm, and composed the oboe line to sit above that of the violin, thus using the higher register of the instrument a lot.
Britten uses a wider range of colour in his Phantasy, written as a competition piece when he was at the Royal College of Music. Thanks partly to the advocacy of the legendary oboist Leon Goossens, but also to his musical craft, the piece won its competition in Paris. Set over nearly 15 minutes, it has a dramatic profile, beginning as a march that seems to process in from nothing – started by the cello – until the sweep of lyrical oboe and punchy strings together is striking.
The first piece in the concert is a two movement Divertissement attributed to Haydn but, it is not wholly certain who actually wrote it. To my slightly untrained ears it sounds like it could be earlier than Haydn, but regardless of who the composer is the music is polite and attractive, the four instruments set in close dialogue.
Schubert’s single movement for String Trio is in the same key – B flat major – and has a similar profile, though does make the most of a striking descending motif throughout. Originally Schubert wanted this to be the first movement of a bigger piece, but after sketching some bars of the slow movement he stopped writing.
Over the last few years Alexei Ogrintchouk has developed from a very promising musician to an oboist right at the top of his game – and that was evident throughout a highly enjoyable concert.
The peak was undoubtedly reached in the Mozart, where he met the virtuosic demands of the piece head on but without losing the airy, lyrical approach that makes the Oboe Quartet such a charmer. The performance of the Britten dug in much more firmly, the strings encouraged to project outwards, and this they did with impressive power when the march took hold. Britten’s genius in working with small forms was evident even at this point, and not a note was wasted in the performance.
Both the Haydn and Schubert performances charmed, the Schubert nicely placed so that the strings had a brief moment in the sun – which they enjoyed, with lightness and dexterity, clearly listening to each other.
What should I listen out for?
2:01 – this light hearted piece begins with an oboe-led melody, while the cello supplies a chugging pulse. The music is polite and attractive. At 5:13 a central section begins, based on the melody from the start.
7:50 – a slightly slower second movement, a courtly dance – in the form of a rondo, which essentially means the same theme recurs at regular intervals. The violin and viola assume greater importance in this movement. The theme itself makes a final appearance at 11:02.
14:25 – the beginning is almost imperceptible, a little phrase from the cello which is gradually joined by the other two stringed instruments. When the oboe joins at 15:07 the tone is songful, though the spiky accompaniment continues, leaving some tension until a firm statement of the main tune at 16:12. Then a different section takes over, with heavier string writing.
20:25 – the writing now has a softer, hazy hue, as the strings enjoy a slower and more obviously lyrical section. At 22:30 a higher melody from the oboe floats above the texture.
24:52 – the main march idea makes a reappearance, striding forward purposefully – until the music fades, as though it were walking over the horizon and out of earshot.
You can read more about the Britten Phantasy on a blog entry I made two years ago here
29:52 – the Schubert String Trio, set in one movement, begins with an attractive melody led by the violin. There is a distinctive downward sweep that is heard from 30:40, and which becomes an important part of the piece. The three instruments stay closely aligned throughout. After developing his main tune, Schubert restates it at 35:22.
40:04 – the oboe is already high in its register when the distinctive tune of the first movement is heard, top of an extremely light texture. The strings are busy in their accompaniment. Mozart then proceeds to manipulate his memorable tune through different methods of presentation, until a slight lull at 43:53 – and the return of the main tune at 44:57.
46:44 – A slight shadow falls over the music for the second movement Adagio, where the strings are softer and the oboe a little mournful if still beautiful in its first melody. At around 48:57 the oboe is left exposed in a kind of cadenza, leading up to the thoughtful end.
49:57 – once again the brightness in this music is evident as a light hearted theme sways between oboe and strings. The oboe enjoys the recurrences of its tune, with Mozart subtly varying the accompaniment each time before finishing on the high ‘F’ of the oboe at 54:00.
If you enjoyed the sound of the oboe, then a logical next step is a couple of orchestral pieces, added to the bottom of the playlist, that use the instrument to its fullest capabilities:
First of all is Ravel’s subtle but gorgeous Le tombeau de Couperin, the oboe taking up the first theme in the Prélude and also enjoying prominence in the slow Menuet.
Then we have Vaughan Williams’ beautiful, autumnal Oboe Concerto, heard here in a new recording from the oboist Nicholas Daniel. The wistful quality perhaps gives away the fact this piece was written in the Second World War. Daniel’s disc is reviewed on Arcana here