Nicholas Daniel and Friends (Faculty Artist Series)

Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Leslie Howard (piano), Katya Apekisheva (piano), Charles Owen (piano), musicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 25.05.2017 

John Woolrich – Array (world premiere, commissioned by Nicholas Daniel and the GSMD)
Franz Liszt – Élégie for cor anglais, piano, harp and harmonium S 130 (first modern performance)
J.S. Bach – Partita in A minor for solo oboe BWV 1013
Pavel Haas – Suite for oboe and piano Op.17
Benjamin Britten – Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe Op.49
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier – Concerto in A minor for five-part oboes Op.15 No.2

How do you like your oboes?  Let me list the ways …

You can have a lone voice, penetrating and compelling, weaving a classical narrative; or, vibrant and fresh, dashing through virtuosic dances.  Or, this epitome of elegiac elegance can be partnered by piano in neoclassical sonatas by turns lyrical and fervent.  Perhaps you’d like to throw in a harmonium and a harp.  Or, maybe a single oboe is not enough: how about ten?

This unusual and intriguing recital by Nicholas Daniel and ‘friends’ – fellow faculty members at the Guildhall School and young students – was an oboe aficionado’s dream.  More than that, though, it offered the opportunity to hear some wonderful writing for the instrument from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries.

Works new and old for ‘oboe ensemble’ framed the programme.  Writing for and being commissioned by Nicholas Daniel has led John Woolrich to write ten pieces for oboe, including the 1996 Oboe Concerto and several pieces which feature solo oboe with unusual ensemble: The Lost Day of Return (2004), for example, for solo oboe and 11-piece wind ensemble with percussion, and From the Book of Disquiet composed in 2001 for Daniel and Fretwork, for oboe and six viols.  In Array Woolrich assembles ten oboes for a miniature that he describes as a ‘ghost of a fanfare’.  The word ‘array’ suggests an impressive display – and the oboe-filled platform was certainly that – and also something arranged in a particular, organised fashion.  The opening trumpet-blast which grew through dissonances was fittingly statuesque, but the subsequent injection of syncopated disruption perhaps intimated the threat of a shadowy ‘dis-array’, and a gentle plaintiveness took precedence in the concluding episode.

A slightly different set of nine players re-joined Daniel at the close of the concert for Boismortier’s Concerto in A minor Op.15 No.2 which was billed as being for ‘five-part oboes’ [sic] though the set of six concertos was published 1727 ‘for five transverse flutes or other instruments without bass’ (Anthony Burton’s programme note informed us that the fifth flute part did in fact include figured bass indications), and here it was performed two players to a part.  The tuning of the unison passages in the ritornelli of the first Allegro was spot on and the movement flashed with a Vivaldian rhythmic spark.  The tutti players formed a firm and solemn contrast to Daniel’s and others’ lyrical excursions in the Largo while the final dance-like Allegro was driven by a spirit of urgency.

I would have liked to have heard more from these young GSMD players but that’s not to suggest it was not a real delight to hear Daniel in a variety of works, alone and with musical partners, which showcased his technical assurance, musical thoughtfulness and the direct nature of his communication.  Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid were performed from memory with impressive authority.  Daniel was a compelling story-teller, traversing the stage for successive movements.  He conjured a frightening darkness in the lowest register as Phaeton’s chariot hurtled to earth and the flaming charioteer plunged into the great river Eridanus, and conveyed Niobe’s grief at the loss of her sons and daughters in the most gentle of whispers.  The jagged leaps and jerks of Bacchus’ festivities were expertly executed, a paradoxically masterful rendition of chaos, while Narcissus’ transformation into a flower was airy and magical, the silvery waters summoned by shimmering trills around which, astonishingly, Daniel wrapped polyphonic reflections.

I was less convinced by Bach’s Partita BWV 1013 (for flute).  While one could not fail to be impressed by Daniel’s virtuosity – the penetrating strength and solidity of his upper register, the frequent leaps of register – the Allemande (which ends in the stratosphere) and Corrente were so breakneck that any hint of a ‘dance’ disappeared in the dazzling finger-work.  While the Sarabande was more reflective and the Bourée anglais had a lovely pungency to the tone, I missed the intimation of counterpoint and harmonic voice-leading that so enriches the sonatas and partitas for solo violin and cello.

Sometimes known as Schlummerlied im Grabe (Lullaby in the grave), Liszt’s Élégie was scored by the composer for various instrumental combinations: for piano; cello and piano; violin and piano; and for the combination of piano, cello, harp, and harmonium.  Daniel’s cor anglais, replacing the cello, was initially accompanied by Lesley Howard’s brusque piano chords before the music expanded lyrically through long-breathed lines.  I wondered how long Daniel could sustain the intense sound without taking a breath! – forever, it seems.  The dark introspection of the work was enhanced by Jason Gong’s harmonium though Elin Samuel’s harp might have had more presence.

Daniel was joined by Katya Apekisheva for Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata, the composer’s last work, and the soft reflectiveness and delicate swells of the piano’s bed of sound in the opening Élégie: Paisiblement was a wonderful support for Daniel’s melodicism.  In contrast, crystalline rhythmic definition and freely rocking arpeggios characterised the Scherzo: Très animé, though the warmth of the central slow section reminded us of the work’s dedicatee, Prokofiev, seeming to allude to dreamy wistfulness of the lyrical episode in the scherzo of the latter’s Op.94 sonata for flute/violin.  Again, Daniel’s tuning was exemplary, no matter how high or low Poulenc ranged, or what dynamic extremes he instructed.  Déploration was a moving lament in which the eloquence of simplicity was confirmed.

The highlight for me, though, was Pavel Haas’ Suite for Oboe and Piano Op.17.  Written five years before the composer died in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944, this is a captivating work, its melodiousness underscored by intensity of feeling.  The opening Furioso had a disturbing and dramatic rawness and there was deep engagement between Daniel and pianist Charles Owen in the second movement, Con fuoco – Con moto e poco largamente, the repetitive rhythms of the piano pulsing with life.  That the final Moderato was a lament, and declaration of love, for a homeland was made explicit by the incorporation of the St Wenceslas Chorale towards the close.

Claire Seymour

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