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20th Century British Music For Oboe / Mcmullen, Herbener

Release Date: 07/21/1998 
Label:  Crystal   Catalog #: 724   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Richard Rodney BennettHerbert HowellsGordon JacobLennox Berkeley,   ... 
Performer:  William McMullenCatherine Herbener
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 5 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

20TH-CENTURY BRITISH MUSIC FOR OBOE AND PIANO William McMullen (ob); Catherine Herbener (pn) CRYSTAL 724 (65:16)

R. BENNETT After Syrinx I. HOWELLS Oboe Sonata. G. JACOB 7 Bagatelles for Solo Oboe. L. BERKELEY Oboe Sonatina. RUBBRA Oboe Read more Sonata in C

Surely everyone is familiar with Oscar Levant’s famous quip, “The oboe is an ill wind that no one blows any good.” Is it just a clever play on an ancient proverb? Not entirely. There is some truth to Levant’s observation, at least to the first part of it, though “ill-tempered” wind would have been closer to the mark; for among all wind instruments, the double reeds—oboe, English horn, and bassoon—are notoriously difficult to tame and are subject to embarrassing tantrums in public places. William McMullen, however, gives the lie to the notion that no one blows the oboe any good.

This is an extraordinary release, and not just for McMullen’s and Catherine Herbener’s excellent playing, but for the program as well, which comprises in the main seldom-heard works. Possibly more widely known for his film scores— Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral , among others—Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936) is also a composer of numerous works for concert hall and opera stage. He studied with Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson at London’s Royal Academy of Music, flirted with the Darmstadt avant-garde, and spent two years in Paris as a student of Pierre Boulez. After Syrinx I (1982) is the longest work on the disc—14 minutes—and is, according to the note, the first in a series of five pieces Bennett wrote that quote Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute. In what, according to the composer, is a “more or less serial texture,” the piece is clearly influenced by Boulez’s teaching. Tone clusters and seemingly random atonal flurries of notes from the piano make up the stock for the soup. The oboe provides the bouquet garni in a floating cantilena that aromatically transforms Debussy’s flute reverie into a cobra charmer’s hypnotic piping.

Closer in spirit to the original Syrinx , at least in its beautiful Lento, is Herbert Howells’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano written in 1942 for famed oboist Leon Goossens. Serious recorded competition in the Howells comes from a gorgeous performance by Sarah Francis, oboe, and Peter Dickinson, piano, on Hyperion’s midpriced Helios label. It also includes the Rubbra sonata heard on the present CD.

Gordon Jacob (1895–1984) composed his Seven Bagatelles in 1970 for the aforementioned Sarah Francis, whose performance on a BBC Radio broadcast that same year may have been taped but is locked in the BBC’s archives; for to my knowledge, there is no currently available commercial recording of her playing the piece. Which is too bad, because of the works on this program, the Jacob may well be the most immediately accessible. Naked and exposed, the solo oboe parades its way through these Satie-like sometimes wistful, sometimes wispy, and sometimes waspish character sketches—the longest lasting three minutes, the shortest 28 seconds. Technically challenging, I’m sure, they’re also highly communicative, and played most expressively here by McMullen.

Soft-core serialism for the squeamish might well describe some of Lennox Berkeley’s works from the 1960s, of which his Oboe Sonatina is an example. His studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and his acquaintanceships with Stravinsky, Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, and Roussel would not exactly have been fertile ground for sowing the seeds of an iconoclastic avant-garde composer. Berkeley remained well in the mainstream fold of mid-20th-century British music, holding the chair of Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy, and enjoying a long association with Benjamin Britten. Berkeley’s catalog of works is large and diverse, and while the Oboe Sonatina heard here is a pleasant enough listen, it is probably fair to say that it is not one of the composer’s most representative pieces.

Of all the composers whose music is presented on this disc, I would venture that Edmund Rubbra (1901–1986), who studied with Holst and Vaughan Williams, may well be one of Britain’s greatest and most underrated 20th-century composers. Mainly a composer of large orchestral and concerted instrumental works (11 symphonies and concertos for piano, violin, viola, and cello), chamber music (sonatas for violin, cello, oboe, and English horn, string quartets, and piano trios), as well as large choral works and solo piano pieces, Rubbra wrote music that is almost Brahmsian in its expressive power and structural integrity. If you have not yet availed yourself of the complete symphonies in a five-CD specially priced set on Chandos with Richard Hickox conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, wait no longer. Be warned, though: if you do not respond readily to Brahms, you may not warm to Rubbra as I have. Another critic (not in this publication) described the music as “relentlessly contrapuntal in style, a bit humorless, often densely orchestrated yet full of fine music.” Sounds a lot like Brahms to me. Rubbra’s writing is indeed contrapuntal and densely packed, though I’d prefer to call it serious rather than humorless. Had Brahms lived a bit longer, I can almost imagine him writing something similar to Rubbra’s C-Major Oboe Sonata. Though composed in 1958, some 60 years after Brahms’s death, this is music closer in style and musical language to the early years of the 20th-century.

While Bennett’s After Syrinx I is not to my personal taste, and Berkeley’s Sonatina isn’t a piece I’d make an effort to hear again, the Howells Sonata and the Jacobs Bagatelles are beauties, and the Rubbra is the jewel in the crown. More than enough music then, along with strong performances and an excellent recording, to make this an easy recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

After Syrinx I by Richard Rodney Bennett
Performer:  William McMullen (Oboe), Catherine Herbener (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1982; England 
Date of Recording: 1998-99 
Venue:  Kimball Hall, University of Nebraska 
Length: 13 Minutes 56 Secs. 
Sonata for Oboe and Piano by Herbert Howells
Performer:  Catherine Herbener (Piano), William McMullen (Oboe)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; England 
Date of Recording: 1998-99 
Venue:  Kimball Hall, University of Nebraska 
Length: 21 Minutes 47 Secs. 
Bagatelles (7) for Oboe by Gordon Jacob
Performer:  William McMullen (Oboe)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1970; England 
Date of Recording: 1998-99 
Venue:  Kimball Hall, University of Nebraska 
Length: 8 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Sonatina for Oboe and Piano, Op. 61 by Lennox Berkeley
Performer:  Catherine Herbener (Piano), William McMullen (Oboe)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1962; England 
Date of Recording: 1998-99 
Venue:  Kimball Hall, University of Nebraska 
Length: 9 Minutes 5 Secs. 
Sonata for Oboe and Piano in C major, Op. 100 by Edmund Rubbra
Performer:  Catherine Herbener (Piano), William McMullen (Oboe)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1958; England 
Date of Recording: 1998-99 
Venue:  Kimball Hall, University of Nebraska 
Length: 11 Minutes 39 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 A Great Find February 16, 2012 By Geoffrey Pearce See All My Reviews "This is repertoire that is so seldom played or recorded so was a real find. There is a generous 65 minutes on this disc and its a delight from beginning to end. The oboe playing of Mr McMullen is exceptional. His colouration, technique and tempi are faultless and I enjoyed his intepretations. A special word of mention should also go to the pianist on this recording Catherine Herbener for her sparkling and supportive role. I have seldom heard an accompanist to match. I hope there are more recordings from these artists." Report Abuse
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