Notes and Editorial Reviews
TEMPORAL VARIATIONS: Music for Oboe and Piano between 1935 and 1941
Birgit Schmieder (ob, Eh); Akiko Yamashita (pn)
AUDITE 92.539 (74: 56)
Temporal Variations. Two Insect Pieces.
Sonata for Oboe and Piano. Sonata for English Horn and Piano.
Suite for Oboe and Piano.
class="ARIAL12bi">Concertino for Solo Oboe and Piano Accompaniment
In 32:3 James H. North wrote a laudatory review of a Blue Griffin CD with contents nearly identical to this disc, the difference being that the Blue Griffin issue has the
Phantasy Quartet and Six Metamorphoses After Ovid
by Britten instead of the works by Haas and Skalkottas presented here. North’s review is so good that it tempted me not to write about the Britten and Hindemith pieces at all. However, I nonetheless choose here to rush in where angels should fear to tread, and so I will put in my two cents’ worth (or less) after all, while urging the reader to see what North had to say as well.
Two Insect Pieces
are early works, dating from 1936 and 1935, respectively. The former, consisting of a theme and eight variations, is by turns dark, stark, and even almost grim, and elsewhere somewhat lighter, displaying an ironic, slightly puckish sense of humor. Brittle, dissonant chords dominate in the piano accompaniment. In the latter work, the first movement, “Grasshopper,” uses awkward intervallic leaps with pauses in between to suggest that insect’s hopping gait. The second movement, “Wasp,” employs a rapid ostinato and angular thematic line with sharp accents to suggest that insect’s aggressive, easily provoked nature and painful sting.
Hindemith’s sonatas for oboe (1938) and English horn (1941) are mainstays of those instruments’ repertoires. The former, cast in only two movements, opens playfully—the tempo indication is
(Cheerful) —and then takes a more serious, ruminative turn, before returning to the original material, which is now somewhat chastened and more anxious. The second movement, cast in an A-B-A’-B’ pattern in contrast to the A-B-A’ structure of its predecessor, opens with one of the composer’s typical long-breathed melodies over a slowly moving accompaniment. A shift from
(Very Slow) to
(Lively) is only relative, as the faster section is still stately and serious, with each section then being reprised in altered form. The English horn sonata, arguably the finest piece ever written for the instrument, opens with an unusually beautiful, melancholic melody in the opening
(Slow) movement, reminiscent of the “Entombment” movement of the
Mathis der Maler
Symphony. A following
is a somewhat heavy-footed peasant dance in 3/4 time. An introspective, somewhat wistful
follows. A brief, energetic scherzo flows without pause into a second
, with hammered piano chords underneath an uneasy English horn melody, suggesting considerable anxiousness before the movement subsides back into melancholy. The concluding second
is another stately, almost flat-footed, dance.
Although generally considered to be the most important Greek composer before Iannis Xenakis, Nikos Skalkottas (1904–1949) remains little known. Originally a violin virtuoso of considerable promise, he went to Berlin in 1921 to study with the famed Willy Hess at the Berlin Hochschule, but by 1925 decided to abandon a performing career in favor of composition. After initial lessons with Philipp Jarnach and Kurt Weill, in 1927 he began five years of study with Arnold Schoenberg, who later ranked Skalkottas as one of his best pupils. A combination of severe financial problems and Hitler’s rise to power forced Skalkottas to return to Greece; at the same time he suffered a nervous breakdown that changed his formerly sunny disposition to one poisoned by bitter cynicism and led to an extended period of writer’s block. By the time he emerged from this slump in 1935, he had forged his own distinctive adaptations of atonal and dodecaphonic compositional techniques. During World War II Skalkottas was arrested by the Nazi occupiers on suspicion of involvement in resistance activities, but released. He belatedly married in 1946, but due to neglect of his health died prematurely in 1948 of a strangulated hernia the day before the birth of his second son. The
composed in 1938, is in a largely atonal vein, though tonal passages variously redolent of Bartók, Hindemith, and Stravinsky appear here and there in passing. The first movement (
) is somewhat whimsical; the second (
Pastorale. Andante tranquillo
) opens in the more Bartókian mood and then reverts to type, followed by a dance-like rondo (
) for its conclusion.
Pavel Haas (1899–1944), a gifted pupil of Leo? Janá?ek, was one of several Jewish composers originally imprisoned by the Nazis in the “model” concentration camp of Theresienstadt and then—once their usefulness for propaganda ploys demonstrating “humane” treatment of Jews in the Third Reich was exhausted—sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. His Suite from 1939 is believed to have been developed from a lost cantata for tenor, with a text protesting the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Even though it is ostensibly tonal, harmonically it is more overtly dissonant than the Skalkottas
. Despite the titles
, the first two movements are not particularly furious or fiery, having moderate to slow tempi. As with Janá?ek, it has a quirky unpredictability and employs a device of recycling short phrases with their downbeats and upbeats shifted. Apparently as a more subtle means of protest, the second and third movements quote the melodies of two Czech hymns with strong patriotic connotations.
Each of the works on this album has enjoyed at least half a dozen previous recordings. While this time I have not been able to listen to or even sample the majority of those, I can say that these performances are excellent in every way, and I prefer the renditions of the Britten and Hindemith works on this disc to the one praised by North that I cited at the start of this review. The latter one has, to my ears, an overly bright recorded sound with too much bias to the treble range, whereas the recorded acoustic of this one is well balanced. Freelance oboist Birgit Schmieder, formerly a member of the Berliner Symphoniker, and pianist Akiko Yamashita, who is based in Berlin, are a well-matched duo who capture and convey the essence of each piece in turn. If you are partial to oboe music of the 20th century, this will make a worthy addition to your collection; recommended.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Works on This Recording
Insect Pieces by Benjamin Britten
Birgit Schmieder (Oboe),
Akiko Yamashita (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1930; England
Sonata for Oboe and Piano by Paul Hindemith
Birgit Schmieder (Oboe),
Akiko Yamashita (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1938; Switzerland
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