Fierce Tears

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Fierce Tears
Contemporary Oboe Music

A disc of ground-breaking new works for oboe by the exciting, young oboist James Turnbull

Since the start of the twentieth century, oboists have been fortunate to receive some very special and powerful works from a wide variety of composers. As we progress further into the twenty-first century, it is important to show that the repertoire is continuing to thrive and be developed by many gifted composers who carry on extending the expressive boundaries of the instrument.

The repertoire on this disc has been chosen in a deliberate attempt to assemble works from the past 30 years by British composers that demonstrate the great contrasts possible with the modern oboe. There are pieces that emphasize stillness and meditation while others focus on the raw emotions of anger and grief.

Forgotten Game (2) was originally conceived as a solo oboe piece before a piano part was added. The music features an interesting array of rhythms and techniques such as the use of alternative fingerings; these allow different timbres to develop through the repetition of just one note. In the composer’s own words, it is “a kind of meditation on nature, in a pagan or spiritual sense. Here the oboist plays the role of a faun accompanying the growth of a tree. The faun weaves a ‘power web’ from the roots to the canopy of the tree. The web precedes the tree’s growth: the faun chooses the direction of the growth and thus the shape of the tree.”

The Kingdom of Dreams opens with a complete contrast to the fiery energy of the previous work. Written in 1989, this collection of short movements are based on four paintings by Paul Klee. The first movement Landscape with Yellow Birds is kept within a very small dynamic range and is rarely allowed to grow into anything further than a mezzo piano. The Bavarian Don Giovanni develops the relationship between the oboe and piano more as the piece progresses. The entries of the piano feature spiked and energetic music which is contrasted with the legato, and often quieter, oboe entries. Tale à la Hoffmann extends the contrast between the two instruments further. The oboe continues to break into new areas of expression while the piano is remarkably calm, apart from occasional dissonant outbursts. The final movement Fish Magic sees the music take on a completely different kind of energy. The tentative qualities of the opening movement are now a distant memory and the way in which the piano and oboe respond to each other becomes increasingly more reactive.

Following these pieces is a transcription of a short song John Woolrich wrote for soprano and chamber ensemble of five players. While not featuring the possibility
of text in this version, The Turkish Mouse takes advantage of the wide array of dynamics and articulation available on the oboe.

Michael Berkeley has had a long and productive relationship with the oboe thanks to two great players, Janet Craxton and Nicholas Daniel. Fierce Tears I & II for oboe and piano, both premièred by Daniel, stand out as highly significant works in his output and the emotionally powerful Oboe Concerto, which he wrote for the English oboist Janet Craxton in 1977, is particularly important as a reference point for these later pieces. Berkeley wrote the third and final movement of the Oboe Concerto in memory of his godfather, Benjamin Britten. In it the there is a haunting and lyrical melody (inspired by the line “Let us sleep now” in the Britten War Requiem) which plays an important role in both Fierce Tears I & II. Despite being published together, the chamber pieces were written several years apart. The first
was completed in 1983 in memory of Craxton, who had died very suddenly two years earlier. The piece paraphrases in music the final stanza of the famous poem by Dylan Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”. This reflects the feeling of despair and, at times, anger often experienced while grieving. In fact this aspect of loss has inspired a whole series of Berkeley works like the Operas, Baa Baa Black Sheep and Jane Eyre and the pieces for String Orchestra, Coronach and Gethsemane Fragment. Given the emotional resonance of both Fierce Tears I and his Oboe Concerto, it is perhaps not surprising that Michael Berkeley returned to the oboe to write Fierce Tears II in 1990, to a commission from the Aldeburgh Festival in memory of his father, the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley. Although both these works are profoundly emotional, they express very different kinds of grief: one could suggest that the gap of seven years between the two pieces shows how differently Michael Berkeley responded to the loss of friends and family at various stages in his life.

In complete contrast, Second Still Life could not be further away from Fierce Tears I & II in terms of emotional content and compositional style, though it could be said to provide the serenity so desperately sought in Fierce Tears. The music features a hypnotic motif first played by the harp and then developed by the oboe. The stillness in this piece is remarkable; in particular Michael Berkeley brings out the soaring quality of the oboe’s upper register while contrasting this beautifully with the timbre of the harp.

Written in memory of the tragic events of September 11, In angustiis (II) is another work on this disc that exists in multiple versions. This piece can be performed by soprano or cello as well as the oboe. It is important to note the existence of an accompanying work for piano entitled In angustiis (I) that can be performed simultaneously with the oboe or alone for solo piano. The title is based on the original name of Haydn’s Mass in Time of War (Missa in angustiis). As with Fierce Tears, this work is essentially focused on the anguish and despair experienced after the loss of life. In the composer’s own words, the music is a‘melancholy reflection’. It draws on unusual techniques such as glissandi and the blowing of air through the instrument without allowing the reed to resonate into the usual sound of an oboe.

Arabescos continues the exploration of a wide variety of emotions. The opening is marked quasi arabic and the oboist is instructed to play ‘bell up’ to further extend the raucous nature of the sound and tuning intended by the composer. Clear and marked contrasts in material are seen throughout the piece. For example, the brutal opening is set against far more expressive sections which bring out the rich qualities of the oboe’s lower register. For the most part, the piano remains an accompaniment to the oboe, creating an ever-changing backdrop. Eventually the piano part explodes into a far more prominent role following an energetic and rhythmic skirmish with the oboe.

The aggressive power of Arabescos is then contrasted with the final two works, Night-Spell and First Grace of Light. The first piece develops from the rhythmic play of one opening tone which is slowly expanded upon – much like Forgotten Game (2). Here Colin Matthews enhances the palette of colours available by using multiphonics and harmonics. While the piece is tranquil for the most part, it stirs into action with the entry of the piano, reaching a dramatic climax before returning to the stillness found in the opening. Like many compositions on this disc, the final piece First Grace of Light can be considered to be a form of meditation. The title comes from the George Mackay Brown poem ‘Daffodils’ whose inspiration can be heard in the way the opening musical phrase slowly blossoms and becomes more expressive as the music progresses.

James Turnbull

    Tansy Davies

  1. Forgotten Game (2)
  2. John Woolrich

  3. The Kingdom of Dreams (i) Landscape with Yellow Birds
  4. The Kingdom of Dreams (ii) The Bavarian Don Giovanni
  5. The Kingdom of Dreams (iii) Tale a la Hoffman
  6. The Kingdom of Dreams (iv) Fish Magic
  7. The Turkish Mouse
  8. Michael Berkeley

  9. Fierce Tears I
  10. Fierce Tears II
  11. Second Still Life for Oboe and Harp
  12. James Macmillan

  13. In Angustiis II for solo oboe
  14. Tansy Davies

  15. Arabescos
  16. Colin Matthews

  17. Night-Spell
  18. Peter Maxwell-Davies

  19. First Grace of Light for solo oboe