‘We should all pipe up for Britain’s oboe star’

Nicholas Daniel’s virtuosity is shown off superbly in two great works, says Richard Morrison of The Times

Nicholas Daniel: Oboe Concertos: Harmonia Mundi *****

If the musical public reversed oboists as they do pianists and tenors, Nicholas Daniel would be as widely esteemed as Lang Lang or Jonas Kaufmann. The 2011 winner of the Queen’s Medal for Music is arguably Britain’s most virtuosic and adventurous instrumentalist and as mesmerising a talent now, at 53, as he was when he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition 35 years ago.

That’s easy to prove because one of the oboe concertos played by Daniel and the excellent Britten Sinfonia on this CD is Vaughan Williams’s 1944 work, which he also performed at that 1980 competition final. Mind you, I find it hard to imagine an 18-year-old Daniel teasing out the shadows and ambiguities of this extraordinary wartime masterpiece as he does now.

Jacqueline du Pré once called it “the oboist’s Elgar Cello Concerto”, and it certainly has a similar undercurrent of autumnal twilight, but also wonderfully melodic passages that recall The Lark Ascending and, in the hymn-like moments, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s serene Fifth Symphony, also written during the Second World War.

It is coupled here with another complex, enigmatic and even bipolar work by a present-day British composer, whose prolific output for professionals and amateurs almost rivals Vaughan Williams’s. James MacMillan wrote his Oboe Concerto five years ago, and it was immediately deemed a classic. What is means is anyone’s guess. The first movement is like a cartoonish representation of modern life at its most brittle and frenetic, although with sudden passages of heartstopping lyricism. The last movement is like Shostakovich in his most gallows-humour mood, but with sardonic pastiches of Webern.

It’s the central largo, however – an enormously extended reworking of a threnody that MacMillan wrote after 9/11 – that is the emotional string glissandos and intertwining high woodwind lines are unforgettable anguished. The oboe writing is insanely demanding throughout; Daniel is stunning.

Richard Morrison, The Times, April 2015

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