Review of Airs, Blues and Dances
It’s a good title and Richard Rodney Bennett’s Four Country Dances manages to embrace all three categories. Based on John Playford’s The Dancing Master (1651), these dances express both a love of the countryside and what we might call the English Blues. This music has a wistful quality that perhaps comes from the challenge of making a rural living if you did not own land.
The CD programme includes a celtic companion piece: Jonathan Dove’s Music for a Lovelorn Lenanshee. In the slow sections the oboe weaves its melancholy like a beautiful bagpipe; and in some of the fast sections we can almost hear the Irish drum. Then in Montana Taylor’s Blues by David Matthews we have a proper American blues – or rather, a clever fantasy on the real thing, skilfully written so it can be played by a non-jazzer. I thoroughly recommend any oboist to explore it, as long as you have an exciting top A flat, as James Turnbull does.
Of the more abstract pieces, I particularly liked the Three Miniatures of Helen Grime. The first is ethereal, the second mercurial and the third melancholic, and they seem much longer than they actually are. That’s a compliment; they are small versions of something bigger, reminding us that ‘short’ does not have to mean ‘insubstantial’.
There’s another lovely quality in some of this music: that of timelessness, of ancient ritual, of a culture stretching back into the distant past. Michael Tippett’s Prelude: Autumn has it, and also Judith Weir’s Mountain Airs, with a lot of unison flute, oboe and clarinet. Ensemble Perpetuo play this with impeccable blending, but in John Tavener’s Little Missenden, their co-ordination doesn’t quite do justice to his medieval organum. As it happens, these last two pieces have a subsidiary role for the oboe, thus varying the texture.
This is 69 minutes of oboe and piano, which (dare I say it) could have become wearing, even to an oboe enthusiast. But not so here; the sound is gorgeous. The main credit must go to James, his tonal concept and his setup.
But there is also the recording venue (in this case the Music Room at Champs Hill) to consider. James Turnbull, producer Patrick Allen and the anonymous engineer have all contrived to use the hall’s natural acoustic to create a breadth of sound, while also maintaining an immediacy from both oboe and piano. James is a consummate player, who can make difficult things sound easy; but the microphone placement brilliantly conveys the sheer physicalness of playing the oboe, of pushing against resistance.
James Turnbull has all the things an oboe soloist needs – technique, sound quality, stamina – but throughout this CD it is his commitment that shines through; he looks to the music for his inspiration. The critic Stephen Johnson has written in the BBC Music Magazine about one of my oboe teachers, Janet Craxton: ‘Far from having one expressive style which she applies to more or less everything, Craxton approaches each piece on its own terms: coaxing out poetry here, scooping deep into the notes and drawing up gold the next.’ I am happy to extend this compliment to James Turnbull.
Jeremy Polmear, Double Reed News Autumn 2016
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