‘Stellar playing and wonderful recorded sounds […] Nicholas Daniel plays and directs with consummate technical mastery.’ 

For the musically curious oboist, the main attraction of this disc could be the work by James MacMIllan. For the player who has struggled to come to terms with the Vaughan Williams concerto, either over many years or as a new study, the attraction of the disc might be how Nicholas Daniel plays it. For whichever reason the disc is acquired, the rewards will be stellar playing and wonderful recorded sounds. The Super Audio CD format and the fine acoustics of St John’s Smith Square in London combine and prove how far commercial digital recording has come since its early days in the 1970s.

Scotsman James MacMillan wrote his Oboe Concerto for the Britten Sinfonia and its dedicatee Nicholas Daniel. It was given its first performance in Birmingham Town Hall in October 2010. As MacMillan tells us: ‘Nicholas and I have been friends for some years now and have had ample time to discuss and consult about the writing of the concerto. I had him totally in mind in the writing of this music. Nicholas was happy to leave me to it but conversations between us over the years have proved invaluable.’  This close relationship between soloist and composer made it all the more mystifying for me (being a domiciled Scot), when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra chose a French soloist and a Swiss conductor to give the Scottish premiere of the piece in January 2013!

Mini-gripe over, so what about the music?

James MacMillan write the following about his ideas and the construction of the piece:

‘It is in three movements. The first opens with a gradual building up of rhythmic laters on violas, bassoon and trumpet before the soloist joins in. Suddenly the music is thrown forward by a metrical modulation and becomes very fast, flighty and virtuosic. Structurally, the music eventually goes into reverse before a solemn coda. The second movement is based on an earlier work for solo oboe, in angustiis… The solo material is expressive and sad, and enters into much dialogue with other wind instruments throughout. The reflective character of the movement is interrupted by little dyadic patterns, various pizzicato outbursts, some scherzo-like material and agitated faster passages, but the principal mood is introverted and cantabile. The overall feeling is extrovert and dramatic, showing off the oboe in fast display. Some of the original ideas from the opening movement are re-introduced in new guises, before an exultant and joyous ending.’

After the premiere of the concerto, one reviewer stated that the piece was so technically challenging that it was unimaginable that any other oboist would be able to play it! Certainly the challenges are immense and these include huge stamina, extraordinary breath and embouchure control, dynamic problems to solve such as loud sustained high notes and very quiet low notes, adjustments of timbre, an ability to play strings of trills or mordents at high speed, roulades and cascades of irregular metre and register, poly-rhythmic episodes, dramatic presentation and extrovert projection.

The main challenge of course, having mastered these technical issues, must be expressing the music and communicating it to the listener. Without a clear understanding this cannot happen, and there is no question that this recorded performance is steeped in complete mastery of the cognitive and emotional aspects of the music.

Nicholas Daniel has performed the Vaughan Williams concerto many times over many years and his experience with the work shows. He plays and directs it with consummate technical mastery of course but there is a depth of feeling and huge attention for the piece coming through every phrase. His is an expansive reading and is one of the slowest of currently available recordings. The outer movements lend themselves to reflection and space and Nicholas Daniel stretches the phrases almost beyond where you feel they can go, but gets away with it. The sounds he produces has tonal variety and a spinning-out quality that always engages the ear, The lengthy pianissimo passages are taken to the limit but I was moved and captivated. As someone remarked, this is the ‘oboist’s Elgar-Cello-Concerto’. Repeated listening uncovers hidden delights. This is a true indicator of an outstanding recording.

The Britten Sinfonia plays superbly throughout, responding enthusiastically to both conductors who they respect and know well. They accept with startling alacrity the challenges of both the MacMillan pieces under the composer’s direction and they give Nicholas Daniel a warm, lush and splendid blend of sounds for the Vaughan Williams work.

Concluding the disc with the late Britten work Suite on English Folk Songs, Nicholas Daniel takes centre stage in the final movement ‘Lord Melbourne’, playing the cor anglais standing, as the composer intended. This movement aptly finishes the CD and is perhaps a sad and poignant musical reference to the struggle with poor health that Britten has at the time of writing, and his acceptance that an active life was most probably over.

Geoffrey Bridge, Double Reed News, May 2015