Review by Althea Talbot-Howard for British Double Reed Society (Winter 2011 edition of Double Reed News)
Fierce Tears Contemporary oboe music James Turnbull, oboe Huw Watkins, piano and Claire Jones, harp Quartz QTZ 2081
In Fierce Tears, James Turnbull presents us with an overview of British contemporary oboe music written during the 26-year period from 1983 to 2009. Central to the disc artistically and literally, are three pieces by Michael Berkeley, two of which express the anguish of intense grief – Fierce Tears I & II – and one which expresses the opposing emotions of serenity, peace and calm – Second Still Life.
On these two opposing attributes of energetic intensity or virtual inertia, Turnbull constructs the rest of the programme, so that each piece displays either one or the other as its principal characteristic. The CD contains seven works for oboe and piano, one for oboe and harp and two for solo oboe, by a distinguished assembly of composers comprising – in addition to Michael Berkeley – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Colin Matthews, John Woolrich, James Macmillan and Tansy Davies. All except Fierce Tears I and Maxwell Davies’ First Grace of Light are world premier recordings.
One of the most interesting aspects of this CD is not so much the insight it gives into the nature of oboe writing over the last 30 years, but the questions it asks about how composers can best use the piano in relation to the oboe. As far as the oboe itself is concerned, all the composers have written quite conservatively, ie well within the established boundaries. There is a lot of 3rd octave work (incidentally played very securely by James, and with a lovely, stable sound in that stratospheric register), but little above G#”’. Alternative fingerings are required by Tansy Davies in the lively Forgotten Game (2); Colin Matthews utilises single and double harmonics in the atmospheric Night Spell; James MacMillan has the oboist blowing through the reed without allowing it to speak in In Angustiis II; and Michael Berkeley uses the occasional lipped glissando in Fierce Tears I.
This conservatism is, in the context of this disc, a very positive thing. Each composer has a strong understanding of the nature of the oboe, takes its capacities as given, and focuses primarily on the musical content of his or her piece. Any ‘effects’ are used only if they serve a clear musical purpose, never as ends in themselves. Such compositional maturity is one of the most attractive features of this recording, as it results in real emotional impact.
If there are two basic approaches to writing for the piano in chamber music, then one is for the piano to support another ‘solo’ instrument, and the other is to write for the two as equal partners. It is instructive to bear this issue in mind when listening to the disc, as the oboe and piano works explore the full range of options. For me, the outstanding piece is Fierce Tears I, which features a compelling score by the accomplished pianist Michael Berkeley. From the opening ominous descending chromatic four-note scale until the end of the piece, the piano writing is entirely idiomatic, enthralling and varied. Dense, accented chordal textures contrast with light, ‘quasi pizzicato’ chords; single-line writing gives way to a chorale, and later on there is some left hand finger/string contact, with each succeeding motif increasing in complexity. Both the oboe and piano parts complement each other perfectly to make an organic whole.
Fierce Tears I is not an easy piece. It is rhythmically highly complex and both James Turnbull and Huw Watkins cope well with the frequent polyrhythms. They enter courageously into the emotional anguish of the piece, playing sometimes with well-judged expressiveness, sometimes with reserve and decorum. The performance would have had an even greater emotional impact had they observed the designated changes of tempo more carefully, as this would have created more space for the introspective mood which Berkeley has created to contrast with the fury of the faster passages. Nevertheless, Turnbull and Watkins make a really convincing case for this strong duo piece.
At the other end of the pianistic spectrum is Night Spell. The oboe part has variety (and top A”’ in pianissimo!), the piano part absolute simplicity, yet together they draw a wonderful picture in sound. Another intriguing work is the opening item, Forgotten Game (2), which shows some real imagination in the oboe writing. This is followed by Woolrich’s The Kingdom of Dreams and The Turkish Mouse, with the programme working well until it reaches Second Still Life, at which point slow and sometimes unaccompanied music starts to dominate, leading to a loss of momentum that Davies’ second piece, Arabescos, only partly alleviates. However, this slight drawback is more than compensated for by the lovely CD booklet, with its atmospheric cover photograph that draws one in, its full- page internal photographs of the artists, and its highly- informative and well-written notes by James Turnbull.
The standard of playing on Fierce Tears is very high from all three musicians. James has an excellent finger technique which allows him to negotiate runs and passage work with real precision. His sound is consistent throughout the range of the instrument, the extended techniques are well within his capability, and he performs each piece with fluency and flair. Huw Watkins draws an amazing range of colours from the piano, displaying great technical and musical artistry throughout the disc; and Claire Jones, the Prince of Wales’ harpist, provides a delightful change of timbre in Second Still Life.
Fierce Tears represents a major contribution to the catalogue of British contemporary oboe recordings and a great personal achievement for James Turnbull. Not only has he displayed his ability to research and play complex and demanding music to a very high standard, he has succeeded in raising all the money to pay for the recording and its related costs and found wonderful artists with whom to collaborate, all by the age of 26. It is highly impressive. Fierce Tears succeeds because, as a carefully thought-through artistic project, it gives us so many different things to think about.
Listening to this CD is not a light musical experience. Instead, it’s a substantial and rewarding one which will satisfy the hungry listener for a long time.