A diverse program with minimal cowpat and plenty of pep.

by Phillip Scott on 24 October, 2021

British composers of the 20th century produced a great deal of chamber music, and most of it is significant. In the case of Arthur Bliss (1891-1975), I would suggest his chamber music contains his best work. Bliss’s Oboe Quintet, commissioned for the Venice festival in 1927, is typical in that it combines an Elgarian sweep with tough, modern harmonies (for their time). It is far from the folksy, English pastoral school that mostly defines this era (the “cowpat” school, as certain critics dubbed it), but that too is represented in this varied program put together by oboist Nicholas Daniel and the Doric String Quartet. 

Nicholas Daniel

The other pieces are an Oboe Quintet by Arnold Bax (1922), Interlude for Oboe and String Quartet by Gerald Finzi (1922-26), Two Interludes from Frederick Delius’s opera Fennimore and Gerda (1908-10), arranged for oboe and string quartet by Eric Fenby, and Six Studies in English Folksong by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1922), originally composed for cello and piano but arranged for cor anglais and string quartet by Robert Stanton. Aside from the Vaughan Williams, all were written for the oboist Leon Goossens, a member of the family that dominated London’s musical scene during the first half of the 1900s.

Bax’s Oboe Quintet is another strong piece, with none of that composer’s occasional note-spinning. It is most notable for its Irish jig finale, where the 6/8 folkdance theme (an original tune) is treated with a contrapuntal rigour and imagination that brings Holst to mind. The 12-minute Interlude by Finzi is substantial, displaying his unmistakably mellow voice, with a troubled, passionate section at its centre. It was intended to be the slow movement of a full quintet. The composer’s crippling self-doubt prevented him from completing the work (as it also did with a planned piano concerto). If he had, the quintet would have been a masterpiece, to judge by this excerpt. The Vaughan Williams pieces are lighter fare but beautifully set out, and Stanton’s 1988 arrangement is completely idiomatic.

Nicholas Daniel is arguably the top English oboist playing today. He is familiar from his recording of Malcolm Arnold’s Oboe Concerto and has recorded a beautiful performance of the Oboe Concerto by Vaughan Williams (another Leon Goossens commission). The Doric Quartet have also shown their flair and understanding on a superb Chandos disc of the two string quartets by William Walton. It is a perfect combination for this repertoire.

The Bax Quintet has a previous recording, in a mixed program of his chamber music by the Nash Ensemble with oboist Gareth Hulse (Hyperion). That performance is more robust, with Hulse delightfully perky in the jig. I slightly prefer it, but Daniel’s mellower take remains irresistible. In the Bliss Quintet, the strongest competition comes from Daniel himself: a 2001 recording with the Maggini Quartet, part of a terrific Naxos survey of Bliss’s chamber music. Both performances are suitably rugged, but the new one is more lyrical in the gentle opening and the slow movement. 

Read this review at limelightmagazine.com.au