Here’s a disc that does just about everything right. Aside from Richard Strauss’s concerto, there isn’t much concerto literature for the oboe in the repertoire (certainly not from the last seventy-five years). But Harmonia mundi’s fine new recording of oboe concertos by Ralph Vaughan Williams and James MacMillan offers two great pieces that ought to be widely played and (one hopes) increasingly found on concert programs.

Musically, there really aren’t many surprises to be found in Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto, though that’s not a bad thing. The score is couched in the familiar, filled with the folk-inflected, modal-ish melodies and harmonic progressions with which Vaughan Williams’ name is usually associated. But, in stark contrast to his increasingly gloomy late music (the Oboe Concerto dates from 1944), its mood is often light and genial; in that it has more than a little in common with its composer’s Fifth Symphony.

Soloist/conductor Nicholas Daniel handles the score’s rapidly unfurling filigrees with ease and plumbs the depths of its sumptuous lyricism with great care. The broad song in the second half of its finale is beautifully played, and the middle movement comes across lithe and perky. The Britten Sinfonia accompanies fluently and with a kind of refined, rustic energy.

The other big piece on the disc MacMillan’s Oboe Concerto. Premiered by these forces in Birmingham in 2010, it marries MacMillan’s love of folk sources with his penchant for sprightly rhythms. The Concerto’s snappy outer movements alternate thumping orchestral patterns with high-flying (sometimes very songful), virtuosic passages for the soloist. The slow middle movement, which began as a response to the September 11th attacks, features some of MacMillan’s most affecting, direct music to date and it’s almost a pity the mood is interrupted by the jaunty (and rather goofy) opening of the finale. Still, it’s a touching, powerful respite well worth revisiting.

Again, oboist Daniel is in terrific form, navigating the Concerto’s demanding writing with ease, more than once reminding of a skilled racecar driver hugging the inside of the track. MacMillan, an able conductor of more than just his own music, ensures an attentive accompaniment from the Sinfonia.

For filler, MacMillan leads the Sinfonia in a vigorous realization of its namesake’s Suite on English Folk Tunes: “A Time There Was…” and an absorbing account of his own One. True to its title, the latter takes a single melodic line and passes it through the orchestra, transforming it as it goes through an array of timbres and instrumental combinations. It may not be the deepest thing MacMillan’s written, but it’s an essay in subtle orchestration and bewitching to the ear.

So, too, is Britten’s Suite, his last completed orchestral composition. MacMillan’s performance captures the naturalness of Britten’s adaptations of his folk sources while also mining the nostalgia that lives not far beneath the music’s surface.


By Jonathan Blumhofer

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