Wigmore Mondays: Nicholas Daniel & Charles Owen – J.S. Bach, Pavel Haas, York Bowen & Julian Anderson

Nicholas Daniel (oboe, above), Charles Owen (piano, below)

J.S. Bach Sinfonia from Easter Oratorio Kommt, eilet und laufet, BWV249 (1725, rev.1938) (1:33-5:40)
Pavel Haas Oboe Suite Op.17 (1939) (5:42-22:12)
Julian Anderson The Bearded Lady (1994) (24:20-31:33)
Stravinsky Russian Maiden’s Song (arr. for oboe and piano) (32:49-36:24)
York Bowen Oboe Sonata Op.85 (37:02-54:22)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The common link to the inventive programme for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Recital was the oboist Leon Goossens, whose instrument Nicholas Daniel still plays. Goossens, who died in 1988, was a legendary artist. Arguably the most influential exponent of the oboe in the 20th century, he helped secure a good deal of modern repertoire for the instrument. He also loved to play arrangements of existing works, such as the Bach movement with which Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen began this concert (from 1:33 on the broadcast link)

This was beautifully phrased and ornamented by Daniel, with exemplary control and beauty of tone, complemented by subtle prompting from Owen. It led without a break into the curious but deeply affecting three-movement Suite from Pavel Haas. The Czech composer’s music is slowly making itself better known after a revival in the 1990s. Prior to then, Haas – along with fellow Jewish composers Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein, had suffered considerable neglect, due partly to the tragic events of 1941-1942. All were taken to concentration camps during the Second World War, and tragically none returned.

This piece was unpredictable in places, and even confrontational between the instruments, but it left quite an emotional trail, writing directly to the soul in the manner of Haas’s teacher Janáček. Its music contained some of the blunt economy of expression for which his teacher was renowned, but also a slightly more whimsical quality. The first movement Furioso (5:42) began sternly but soon became more introspective, Owen’s considered interpretation bringing characterisation to the twists and turns of the piano part. The second movement, marked Con fuoco (10:08) began with an outburst from the piano, which was then calmed a little by the lyrical oboe line – and the two plotted very different paths during the course of the movement, which finished with another impassioned statement from the piano. The final movement Moderato (15:38) was calmer and found greater alignment between the two. A lovely, much more intimate moment from 19:57 led by the oboe but with an evocative loop from the piano, growing to an impressive climax.

For his comedic piece The Bearded Lady, commissioned by Daniel and based on a scene in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, Julian Anderson used the extremities of the range of both instruments, the oboe jumping and swooping between high and low pitches, before we heard a tumbling figure down the piano. Then both instruments descended together, and while the piano hammered away at the low register Daniel left the stage. This was all part of the theatre, for soon we heard in the distance the mournful tones of the cor anglais (30:31), The Bearded Lady lamenting her fate at the end of an entertaining piece.

Stravinsky himself followed, an arrangement of the Russian Maiden’s Song from the 1921 comic opera Mavra. This had the classic Stravinsky combination of spiky rhythms but more tender melodic asides, the affecting and slightly humorous melody complemented by spicy harmonies from the piano.

York Bowen is often viewed as an English equivalent to Saint-Saëns or Rachmaninov – which gives a good idea of where his strengths lie. A melodic composer, he also makes quite heavy virtuoso demands on the performer – demands that Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen met head on. They enjoyed the light hearted and sweet first movement, with its winsome melody, presenting it as part of a graceful dance.

The slow movement (44:15), marked Andantino espressivo by the composer, featured a long-breathed melody that Daniel played and phrased beautifully, lightly prompted by Owen. As the music got more intense we heard more of the lower range of Daniel’s oboe, a full-bodied sound, before the melancholy theme reappeared.

The shackles were confidently thrown off for the finale (50:23, marked Allegro giocoso) with a cheeky and memorable theme, which led to some fun sparring between the instruments and a bright signing-off.

As a bonus Daniel brought the recital full circle, returning to a Bach arrangement – on this occasion the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E flat major BWV1031. Unfortunately the radio broadcast cut away before this was played – a shame, as they would have had room for it. It certainly capped a very fine recital which showed a much greater depth to the oboe repertoire than one might expect!

Further listening

Nicholas Daniel has not recorded any of the material in this concert, but it can be tracked in this Spotify playlist:

Five years ago Daniel and a number of colleagues released this disc of chamber works by the Scottish Thea Musgrave, who turned 90 this year:

Vaughan Williams and Sir James MacMillan – Oboe Concertos

macmillan-vw-daniel

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: