‘Nicholas Daniel excels with a beautiful, seductive tone, drawing lots of melancholy from his instrument, keeping complete control in the more difficult passages.’

Lovers of British music will find much to enjoy, but it’s not all ‘so very British’ sweet countryside on the menu!

Vaughan Williams’ oboe concerto is a classic, full of lyrical melodies, written towards the end of his life. It depicts idyllic British ‘country life’ so typical for British music in those days, but the mood gets more sombre as the score nears the final bars. 

Its elegant tone masks the difficulties for the soloist. This concerto is not for a casual or faint-hearted oboe player. The solo part requires nearly 20 minutes, i.e. almost the full duration of the concerto, of difficult and focused solo play. Nicholas Daniel, the orchestra’s principal oboist does so with apparent ease. He excels with a beautiful, seductive tone, drawing lots of melancholy from his instrument, keeping complete control in the more difficult passages. The supporting strings create the perfect setting for a crack performance, thus paying tribute to one of the most beautiful oboe concerti of the past century. And not just for the British!

MacMillan, by contrast, brings us, as I see it, to town. His oboe concerto is modern, tonal, accessible, but at the same time complex for the soloist as well as the listener. Extremely difficult, too. It needs an accomplished oboist as Daniel undoubtedly is. James MacMillan wrote it especially for, and in close consultation with him. 

Conductor-composer James MacMillan is by now widely recognised as one of the most respected British (or should I say: Scottish) composers of his generation. The oboe concerto is not his first fully fledged solo orchestral work. He has previously written a concerto for cello (1997), piano (2003) and, in the same year as this oboe concerto, one for violin (2010). 

The first movement is clearly not for nervous people, as life for many in London, or Glasgow, for that matter, surely must be. Rush hour at Trafalgar Square or Victoria Station, so it seems. With the boisterous elements in the third movement a comparison may be made with ‘City Scape’ (2002) of the successful American composer, Jenifer Higdon (born 1962). At least this is how I, a country-dweller myself, feel it. 

MacMillan makes no reference to any city life. He calls the outer movements ‘joyous’ and ‘quirky’. But that should, to my mind, not necessarily preclude any of the listener’s feelings when listening and ‘digesting’ the music. 

For me, this composition is a clear sign of its time, a mirror of the world we now live in: Restless, fear of what may come, often emotionally over the top to hide feelings and anguish; laughing and crying stand back to back. And the middle movement is not joyous at all. It is based upon MacMillan‘s earlier work for solo oboe ‘In Angustiis’ (in distress), which was a response to the 9/11 atrocities in the United States. 

Don’t get me wrong. I think that we have here a major contribution to the catalogue; a concerto that is here to stay (for the few oboe players who can handle it).

In between these two concerti, making already for a rewardingly contrasting programme, we get one of MacMillan’s intriguing and imaginative shorter pieces, composed for the 20th anniversary of Britten Sinfonia. It is a monody of a single line drawn from a traditional Celtic folk song that passes amongst the instruments, each giving it a particular colour, ending in harmony in the final chord.

The final piece on this disk brings us back to provincial and rural England. It is the fruit of one of Benjamin Britten’s happier moments during the final chapter of his life. The title and sub-titles say it all: ‘The Suite on English Folk Tunes’ etc. It recreates traditional folk songs along complex melodic and harmonic twists, of which Britten seems to hold the secret. In the final movement Nicholas Daniel pays tribute to The Lord Melbourne with a standing solo on a cor anglais as intended by Britten (so the liner notes assure us).

The composition of Britten Sinfonia remains something of a mystery to me. A photo on the back cover shows 12 players, suggesting that this is the full complement. But the booklet lists a large chamber orchestra of 45. Consulting the pages on the site of Britten Sinfonia there is no listing of its players and photos of the orchestra show them in variable, but invariably small numbers. I take it that, as with many other chamber groups, this Cambridge (and Norwich) based ensemble has a ‘geometrie variable’ as required for the performance of a piece. Whatever the case may be, this question is, as far as I am concerned, of a purely academic nature, because I cannot but admit that the playing is of a very high standard throughout, with or without ‘borrowed talent’.

All in all a most welcome disc, the more so since the Harmonia Mundi USA engineers did an outstanding job as far as the (especially multi-channel) recording is concerned (St John’s Smith Square, London 2014). The sound is warm, clear and the instruments are well defined. What else remains there to be wished for?!

Adrian Quanjer, SA-DC.net, April 2015

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