Appeal of the Oboe

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Published: 10th September, 2014

In the light of recent controversy about the dearth of oboe players in Australia, Classic Melbourne is pleased to have  a new CD to review whose quality defies the gloomy predictions. French Oboe Sonatas (Masters Performers: MP027) features oboist Ben Opie and pianist Peter de Jager, playing works by Saint Saens, Poulenc, Dutilleux, Koechlin and Milhaud.

The empathy between the two players is evident from the outset. The phrasing alone in the first sonata already reassured the listener that Ben Opie is a fine oboe player who understands both the composer and his instrument. Saint-Saens’ Sonata for Oboe and Piano, like others on this CD, gives due respect to the piano as partner – and Peter de Jager’s performance, (in this case with its broken chords and arpeggios) shows how the two instruments complement each other.

All this could be ascertained within minutes, and already I simply wanted to hear more of the piece and of the CD. Saint-Saens’ birdcall-like music, while the piano respectfully played a lilting sound, kept the focus on the oboe with the piano having a more interesting and complimentary role later in the piece. The second movement, Allegretto, had an interesting “ad libitum” marking at the end while the brisk third movement was a technical challenge for both, ably met, especially as the movement gathered speed. Some strong held notes on the oboe were followed by trills that added interest right through to the declamatory ending from both instruments.

Dutilleux’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano was the most modern of the pieces, but worth attention: hypnotic and unusually slow to begin, with the next, Scherzo featuring a discordant piano and the oboe carrying the melodic interest. Finally a blending of the instruments was achieved in this quite elegiac piece, again balancing the sound as mood and tempo varied.

The word “elegiac” must be used to describe the Poulenc Sonata (and it is indeed similar to the second movement of the composer’s better known flute concerto). The comparative depth of the oboe, however, added to its trancelike sound. The Scherzo was a piano showcase with its staccato and long trill while the difficult-to-translate “Deploration” to end seemed to involve a kind of exploration, subdued but with a quite eastern sound from the oboe.

Next was music by Charles Koechlin, a long work that invited thoughts of sunny days outside enjoying a light breeze, so restful was its opening movement beginning with a Pastorale. This was well suited to the sound of the oboe, but the technical prowess of both players was to be challenged by a range of moods and technical demands. Their partnership kept everything together admirably, for example when piano scales and a bright oboe motif alternated. The third movement “Le Soir dans la Campagne”, in contrast, was dreamy and ethereal, Opie’s resonant oboe supported by a gentle piano with well-judged dynamics. In the final movement, still gentle but more romantic and bucolic, the two instruments appeared to flow into each other in an easy, sonorous partnership.

There was still the Milhaud to come, but I was already convinced. Ben Opie is already an oboist of great polish and, in pianist Peter de Jager, has found the perfect accompanist – in the most democratic sense of the word!

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 A more expert review was equally pleased, as well as adding valuable context, and (with permission) we quote from it…

CD REVIEW by Stephen Moschner

When we think of recordings of the great French Oboe Sonata repertoire we tend to look towards some of the big European Oboists recordings of last century, such as the 1980’s Hansjorg Schellenberger French Sonatas (Dennon:CO-73088) or perhaps the Nicholas Daniel Oboe Sonatas (Virgin: 724356114128); or to the more recent French recordings by Christan Schmitt (SigMus:SMCD101) or the Poulenc Sonata by Francois Leleux (Harmonia Mundi:HMN911556).

I am very pleased with this new release to see that it is a local Australian Oboist, Ben Opie, taking on the challenge of some highly recognisable ground in the repertoire. Recordings by local Oboists are for the most part premier recordings of local composers and commissioned works. These recordings are very positive in the way they expand our repertoire and provide a platform for Australian Music, but they do not often cover an area that can be held up against our expectations of other famous performances.

The CD starts with the familiar Saint Saens Sonata, the most flexible work to approach in this repertoire area. For all those students, and professionals alike, the line of air in this work is all won and lost in the 1st movement with the low d to a” legato leap on line 1, and Ben did not disappoint to set the scene here for an enjoyable interpretation and tempi. My highlights were the closing of the 2nd movement (ad libitium) played with great control and the technical flourish of the 3rd movement.

The Dutilleux Sonata has had a bit of a revival with the repertoire in recent times and with the composers very recent passing (Henri Dutilleux – 22 January 1916 – 22 May 2013) the Oboe Sonata has secured its place very much in the standard repertoire. The long playing in the Scherzo movement was a highlight.

With the opening of the 1st movement of the next sonata by Poulenc we have again one of “those” points in the oboe repertoire where we all listen intently, and well executed here. The treacherous Piano work in the 2nd movement is taken on with vigour by Peter de Jager, showing some great moments in the slower section. The final movement though was the climax of expression on the whole disc.

From a double reed stand point my main listening focus of the recording was with the little played Koechlin Sonata (1916); Le Soir dans la Campagne is a gem; and the lesser recorded Milhaud Sonatina (1954), which apart from the Heinz Holliger recording, the only recent version is by BBC Oboist David Cowley (Dryad: DJC001); so this recording is a great reference for people looking to expand their known French offerings.

So a round of applause to Ben Opie and Peter de Jager for taking the leap into this great repertoire!

 Ben Opie and Peter de Jager perform French Sonatas at the Melbourne Recital Centre on December 4 at 6pm. 

Their CD is available at http://www.benopie.com.au/

 Stephen Moschner  was originally trained as an oboist prior to a life in music administration and instruments. He is the secretary of the Australasian double reed society and in July 2014 presented at the International Double Reed Society conference in New York. 

Classic Melbourne addressed some basic questions to this expert:

CM: Why is the oboe the “keeper of the A” for tuning up the orchestra?

SM: When the oboe player makes their reed it is to the set pitch. Such as A=440. The oboe is a conical bore instrument and if we had to adjust the reed in our out, like a flute or clarinet does, then the fundamental acoustics of the instrument are put out.  Now that’s the physics answer! The quick one is “tradition”.

CM: What is the appeal of the oboe: for the performer, and for the listener?

SM: The oboe is more strident than the mellow clarinet or open sounded flute.  It offers a different sound palate in the orchestra. A woodwind that cuts through the strings and gives the listener a haunting and as is often employed by composers, pastorale aesthetic.The appeal for the player is as much a physical and mental challenge as a musical one.

CM: Is it true that some oboists have a love-hate relationship with their instruments?

SM: On the same point. The love hate part does come into playing the instrument. The ongoing reed stability and making combined with having to produce as much air pressure as a high trumpet or piccolo at all times. When it all works it is an experience unlike others but mastery is one which takes a large commitment as well as patience.

CM: Name us some names ….

SM: Locally … Diana Doherty, Jeff Crellin at MSO and Celia Craig, Principal at Adelaide SO.

Heinz Holliger the greatest wind soloist on any instrument in the 20th century.  He brought the avante garde to woodwind.

Albrecht Meyer, current Berlin Philharmonic Principal and soloist

Gordon Hunt, Principal, London Philharmonic

Francois Leleux, Principal Munich Philharmonic and a big soloist

Leon Goossens (1897-1988), one of the most significant figures in the history of the oboe. He was an orchestral player, teacher and concert artist with a career which spanned more than half a century.

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