The oboist, James Turnbull, has been described by The Independent as ‘a worthy champion of contemporary oboe music’. His new CD, recorded in April 2017 for Toccata Classics, offers oboists the chance to explore and perform five of Stephen Dodgson’s works, which he wrote over a period of 33 years. It consists of a Suite in C minor for oboe and piano (1957); the Sonata for cor anglais and piano (1967); 3 Winter Songs for soprano, oboe and piano (1972); the Sonata for oboe and piano (1987) and Countdown for oboe and harp (1990).
James Turnbull and Libby Turner form an inspired duo, as shown in both the Suite and Sonata for oboe and piano. Just occasionally the more reflective sections could have been even more expansive. James’ clear, focused tone, with his expressive use of vibrato however, is perfect for the long slow phrases that occur between the lively passages, to which he brings an appropriate variety of light articulation.
Throughout his life Stephen Dodgson was a prolific composer. He also taught composition for many years at the Royal College of Music. Early on in his career he began to receive commissions for chamber and instrumental music; a case in point is his Sonata for cor anglais and piano, which was commissioned by Catherine Smith of Sheba Sound fame. James’ warm and mellow tone is perfectly suited to the lyrical nature of this piece.
Countdown is a winning and amusing composition that falls into 4 movements: firstly there is a ‘Birthday Salute to the Queen Mother on the occasion of her 90th Birthday’, consisting of 90 bars of music, during which time 90 candles are lit. At the end Stephen Dodgson adds: ‘90 bars the piece do make, and 90 candles on the cake’.
This is followed by ‘Counting Sheep’, ‘Counting Money’, and finishes with ‘Counting your Blessings’. There is a lovely blend of tonal colour between the oboe and harp.
For Winter Songs, 3 poems have been chosen: George Crabbe’s ‘Birds in Winter’, Osbert Sitwell’s ‘Winter the Huntsman’ and Hilaire Belloc’s early poem ‘February’. The composer’s imaginative gift for colouring the vocal texts is impressive, as is the balance between the players and soprano in this performance. In the second song the oboe represents the wild call of the Winter Huntsman. The opening of ‘February’ tells of the silent and frozen quality of winter nights. As dawn approaches, however, the mood changes into a celebration for the rising sun, with the soprano singing a joyous top A.
This CD will certainly inspire oboists of today to play these pieces, thereby expanding their repertoire. It is not, on first hearing, always the easiest music to comprehend, but having listened to the CD several times it becomes increasingly more meaningful.
All four performers on the disc are excellent musicians and their playing/singing demonstrates assured technical ability, faultless ensemble, a real understanding and appreciation of Stephen Dodgson’s compositions, together with the means of conveying to the listener his wit and humour, rhythmic tension as well as the constant changes of mood. This is musicianship of a high order.