Tuesday 9 June 2015

RVW and MacMillan oboe concertos

Vaughan Williams, James MacMillan, Benjamin Britten - Nicholas Daniel, Britten Sinfonia
Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto, James MacMillan One and Oboe Concerto, Britten A Time There Was; Nicholas Daniel, Britten Sinfonia, James MacMillan
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 03 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Imaginative pairing of three very different British composers

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote concertos and concertante works throughout his life, though not all are as well known as they should be (see my review of the recent recording of the Violin Concerto from Tamsin Waley-Cohen), but his Oboe Concerto has made a place for itself in the repertoire thanks to the effortless lyricism of the writing and the challenging solo for the oboe. RVW's writing always has some sort of folk music influence deep in its DNA and this new Harmonia Mundi disc from oboist Nicholas Daniel, the Britten Sinfonia and conductor James MacMillan pairs up the work with a very different folk-song related work, Benjamin Britten's Suite on English Folk Tunes: A Time There Was, written like the RVW rather late in the composer's career. James MacMillan also conducts two of his own works, One and the Oboe Concerto which was written in 2010 for Nicholas Daniel.

The disc opens with the RVW concerto, and here Nicholas Daniel is doing double duty as both soloist and musical director. Perhaps for this reason the three movements are all imbued with a sense of steadiness and pastoral calm. To say that speeds are slow is wrong, they are not, but throughout Nicholas Daniel's oboe seems unhurried even in the fast sections, and the whole has a lovely serenity about it.  There is great lyrical beauty to the opening Rondo Pastorale with a lovely mellow tone from the solo oboe, and Nicholas Daniel plays with a singing line with the flurries of notes nicely fluid. The middle movement, Minuet and Musette is full of perky wit and charm but with a serious tint. Whilst the closing Finale (Scherzo) has some wonderful fast flurries of notes from both oboe and orchestra. There is a nice toe-tapping wit and poise here, but still with a sense of lyrical serenity despite the flurries of anxieties in the middle. Perhaps this is not the most impulsive of performances, but there a lovely sense of maturity and thoughtfulness.

James MacMillan takes the podium for the remainder of the disc, and his own One,  a work for chamber orchestra, comes next. It was written for the Britten Sinfonia and premiered by them in 2012 for their 20th birthday celebrations. In this short piece (it lasts under 5 minutes) James MacMillan manages to showcase the entire orchestra by having just a single line with no harmony. Starting from a slowly rhapsodic rather Celtic melody, James MacMillan passes the melodic line hocket-like between instruments or groups of instruments. It is timbre and colour which count here, rather than harmony, and it is only in the final bars that the piece blossoms into a small but telling piece of harmony.

James MacMillan's Oboe Concerto was written in 2010 for Nicholas Daniel, and premiered by him and the Britten Sinfonia. Some of the material for the work derives from James MacMillan's earlier solo piece In Angustiis based on Hadyn's Missa in Angustiis. The opening movement is marked marcato e ritmico and places the perky yet singing oboe solo over tight rhythmic underlay, the whole rather fast leading to some mad bravura scales in the oboe. This is a world away from the more pastoral lyricism of RVW, and there are some darkly dramatic moments as well as a rather eerie cadenza. And there is a sense that the orchestra is interrupting the soloists, creating more of a sense of dramatic dialogue. This sense of drama continues into the long middle movement, Largo, which Nicholas Daniel in his note in the CD booklet likens to a dramatic one-act opera. The oboe line here is slow, sustained and very intense, with complementary contributions from the orchestral wind. The result is indeed like a dramatic scena, and is very powerful. The concluding Allegro is dark and characterful with some very strong colours. The oboe solo comes over as very strong and determined here, but still with moments of humour. In all three movements we get a lovely sense of James MacMillan exploring the possible texture and timbres of the combination of oboe and chamber orchestra, as well as pushing the soloist to the limit.

Britten's 1974 suite on English folk-songs, A Time There Was was written in the period after his heart operation. Britten based each of the five movements on two tunes, using both folk-songs and tunes from Playford's Dancing Master. He did not simply set the melodies as arrangements, but used parts of the melodies to develop  the material. Cakes and Ale fast and energetic, with a dark cast to it and though it is characterful and ingenious this is hardly jolly music. The bitter whey is lyrical and rhapsodic with an interesting rhythmic undertow. Hankin booby starts with an evocation of pipes and drums, developing into something rather edgy,  a version of a Renaissance dance filtered through Britten's creative imagination. Hunt the squirrel is another evocation, this time a string led country dance, all lively jollity and some terrific string playing. The last movement is Lord Melbourne is the longest. It is quietly elegiac and rather lamenting in tone, with a lovely wistful cor anglais solo played by Nicholas Daniel.

The music of the suite wanders a long way from the English pastoral and one of Britten's inspirations for the work was his admiration for Percy Grainger's imaginative folk-song arrangements. Here, under the baton of James MacMillan, the Britten Sinfonia brings out all the work's dark complexity.

This is a fascinating programme full of links and influences around three very different British composers. Highly recommended.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Concerto for oboe and strings in A minor (1944) [20.38]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - One (2012) [4.49]
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Oboe Concerto (2010) [24.00]
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Suite on English Folk Tunes: A Time There Was, Op.90 (1974) [16.30]
Nicholas Daniel (oboe, cor anglais, director)
Britten Sinfonia
James MacMillan (conductor)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 807573 1CD [65.57]

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