Vaughan Williams and Sir James MacMillan – Oboe Concertos

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Nicholas Daniel teams up with the Britten Sinfonia and Harmonia Mundi to present the recorded premiere of the Oboe Concerto by the recently knighted Sir James MacMillan. He couples this with a much shorter piece by the composer, One, and another British oboe concerto, the well-loved Vaughan Williams. Completing a varied cross-section of styles is Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was), his final completed orchestral work.

What’s the music like?

MacMillan has written a bold Oboe Concerto, a substantial work lasting nearly 25 minutes that makes great technical demands on its soloist. It is a rewrite of an earlier piece for oboe and orchestra, In Angustiis, which responded to the horrors of 9/11. While the piece is essentially optimistic in tone, these thoughts can be felt in the second movement, essentially a lament, where the strings sigh painfully, and in a moment of deep thought that occurs towards the end of the first movement – in complete contrast to the jaunty, angular main material.

Vaughan Williams’ concerto is a lovely piece, its dreamy first theme coloured with strings to evoke a picture of hazy sunshine. Completed in 1944, it is a largely positive work in the face of the Second World War, especially in the third movement, where a dance plays out between oboe and strings.

Britten’s suite, as with so many of his orchestral works, is a model of economy, saying in fifteen minutes what many lesser composers would do in 25. It is extremely resourceful in its use of ten folk tunes, but it is also tinged with pain, the composer aware that he is in his last days – and this is felt in Daniel’s cor anglais solo in the tune Lord Melbourne.

One, the second MacMillan piece here also shows his love for his home country, based on a single, arching tune based on the traditional song of Scotland and Ireland.

Does it all work?

Nicholas Daniel is one of our finest oboists, and although even he admits to difficulties in learning the part for the MacMillan his playing is absolutely superb. The energy of that work contrasts with the soulful Vaughan Williams, an affectionate performance where the slightly reduced forces of the Britten Sinfonia (in comparison to a full scale orchestra) mean more detail can be heard and enjoyed. Turning his hand to a conducting role, Daniel teases out Britten’s subtle affection for folk tunes through the relative darkness of illness.

Is it recommended?

Yes – and how satisfying to listen to such a substantial contemporary piece for oboe, which could hardly have a better advocate than it does here.

With contrasting styles of music this disc is an unrestricted pleasure, and is recommended for all fans of classical music from these shores.

Listen on Spotify

This disc can be heard here:

Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Reinventing the piano trio

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Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Wigmore Hall, 4 March 2015.

If chamber music is not your forte, then I cannot imagine a better way into it than by the Britten Sinfonia’s ‘At Lunch’ concert series, held in London, Cambridge and Norwich.

Each program explores works written for a particular instrumental combination, but always includes a world premiere from a living composer. The informal atmosphere is both performer and audience friendly, and as a diversion from work or a pause in the middle of the day, the experience is ideal.

This second concert of the 2015 season chose to look at the piano trio, a misleading label since the standard combination of instruments for the trio is piano, violin and cello. Yet, as the program observed, the form is less often used by contemporary composers, and has a heritage of works running from Haydn in the mid-18th century through to 20th century composers such as Shostakovich, who featured here.

What the Britten Sinfonia did really well was to present possible solutions to the form, which here included adding percussion. To begin we heard Lou Harrison’s Varied Trio, for violin, piano and percussion. Harrison, an American composer who lived from 1917-2003, took as his inspiration the music of a number of different countries including China and Indonesia, and his original approach here included a set of rice bowls played with chopsticks. The resultant sounds were often soothing and rather wonderful, drifting as though on the breeze from percussionist Owen Gunnell, but with pianist Huw Watkins also reaching around inside the instrument to produce some unusual sounds. Completing the trio was violinist Thomas Gould, whose sweetly toned Elegy formed the third of the Varied Trio’s five movements and made it the emotional centre.

The new piece was from 22-year old composer Joey Roukens, who described his Lost in a surreal trip as ‘a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic 12-minute piece’. It was vividly coloured and brilliantly realised by the players, adding cellist Caroline Dearnley to their number. Early on the music cast spells of dappled light through harmonics on the strings and intriguing percussion sounds, but then a more mechanical energy took hold as though we were being transported by train to a place without a firm surface. With bags of reverberation and some enchanting sounds from the marimbas, this piece was consistently inventive and will be well worth hearing.

From the conventional piano trio legacy came one of its finest works in the 20th century, the Piano Trio no.2 by Shostakovich. This concentrated wartime work from 1944 is packed full of anguish, marking the death of the composer’s close friend Ivan Sollertinsky but also expressing outright anger at conflict and war. Gould, Dearnley and Watkins had no need for percussion here, not with the rhythmic profile Shostakovich establishes, but theirs was a keenly felt performance that left the listener in no doubt of the composer’s feelings and concerns.

A Spotify playlist containing the Varied trio and the Shostakovich Piano Trio no.2 can be accessed here: