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:

Vaughan Williams – Symphonies nos. 4 & 8

Featured recording: Vaughan Williams – Symphonies nos. 4 & 8 (London Philharmonic Orchestra)
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Two very different Vaughan Williams symphonies presented in live recordings by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with the angry, resentful Fourth conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and the seraphic Eighth under the direction of the orchestra’s chief conductor Vladimir Jurowski

What’s the music like?

Of all his nine symphonies, the Fourth, completed in 1935, is the one that sounds least like Vaughan Williams’ work. If you didn’t know the composer, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a wartime Russian work. Such is the explosion of anger at the start, the ongoing the desolation in the slow movement, the very notion of VW being a ‘green and pleasant land’ composer is thrown right out of the water.

The Eighth Symphony of 1955 is much more amiable in mood. It is not well known among the composer’s output but there are some lovely sonorities here, such as the beautiful textures at the start, where Vaughan Williams harnesses a number of percussion instruments. Celesta and vibraphone blend beautifully to make music that sounds as if it originated a lot further east than the North Sea! The large percussion section also includes three tuned gongs. The middle two movements dispense with these instruments – the third becoming a gorgeous romance for strings – while the closing minutes are full of joyous music.

Does it all work?

This is a disc of two halves. The Symphony no.4 is given a strong performance but feels rushed at times, especially in the fourth movement, where Ryan Wigglesworth zips through a lot of the arguments so fast that they sound just a bit perfunctory.

That said, the fall-out at the end of the first movement makes quite an impact, the coda sounding truly desolate, while the second movement Scherzo is spot on, thanks to a superb bassoon contribution.

In contrast the Eighth Symphony receives an affectionate performance under the direction of Vladimir Jurowski, enjoying the use of the percussion at the start, mysterious yet rather exotic too. The Cavatina is the emotional centre of this piece, ending with a lovely cello solo that rises through the layers at the end. From this point the last movement Toccata is a joyous celebration, sounding English in its folksy tunes but again enjoying the shimmering sounds the tuned percussion have to offer.

Is it recommended?

Jurowski’s performance of the Eighth is recommended without reservation, a beautifully constructed performance that enjoys the unusual orchestral colours but which is keenly emotive too. The recording from London’s Royal Festival Hall is excellent.

Wigglesworth’s Fourth – though well played – is good but not so fine that it displaces the formidable competition among its rivals. Recordings conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, Vernon Handley and Bernard Haitink are all preferable in this respect.

Listen on Spotify

You can judge for yourself by hearing the album on Spotify here: