ENGLISH OBOE CONCERTOS – Jill Crowther (ob); Alan Cuckston, cond; English Northern Philharmonia – ASV CD WHL-2130 (64:58)
LEIGHTON: Oboe Concerto. J. GARDNER: Oboe Concerto. HURD: Concerto da Camera. BLEZARD: Two Celtic Pieces. P. LANE: Three Spanish Dances.
A new release in ASV’s “White Line Light Classics” series, this program of oboe works by English composers of the 20th century is a varied, engaging delight. I must first say that for me the term “light classics” calls to mind musical images along a spectrum bounded by the overtures of von Suppé and the novelty pieces of Leroy Anderson, both of which send me heading for the hills. Lest other readers be burdened by the same prejudice, I should make clear that the music on this CD does not fall along that spectrum. A more accurate generic description would be: music that is largely cheerful, or at least amiable, in character, and easy to understand and enjoy at first hearing. The stylistic range extends from the substantive 20th-century traditionalism of the Leighton concerto to the frankly slick—but reasonably tasteful—commercialism of Lane’s Spanish Dances.
The Oboe Concerto by Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) is the musical heavy-weight on the program. Leighton enjoyed a distinguished career in the world of music academia in England. His concerto dates from 1953, although it was not performed until 2000. Its first two movements are quite searching and reflective, at times suggesting the Vaughan Williams of Flos Campi. Although the last movement is a bit more routine in its pleasantly lively neoclassicism, this is the one work on the disc whose meaning continues to grow with repeated hearings.
John Gardner (b. 1917) is a prolific composer who has been an active contributor to the world of film and television, as well as to the concert hall. His 1990 concerto imbues a vigorous, Britten-flavored neoclassicism with a fresh, warm spirit and some catchy tunes. The ingratiating slow movement employs a sort of pseudo-Baroque manner, while the cheerful finale is again of lesser interest.
I gather that Michael Hurd (b. 1928) is best known as a composer of choral music with a pop flavor. His short concerto, first performed in 1979, also reveals a bit of pop feeling, while steering clear of anything schlock or silly. It simply conjures a mood of benign relaxation. Once again the finale pursues a more mundane course. (Yes, these fellows do seem to have trouble maintaining their standards in final movements.)
William Blezard (b. 1921) is another composer who has straddled the worlds of film and concert hall. His Two Celtic Pieces were originally conceived for flute and piano, but they sound fine in this combination. Unlike the deliberate plainness of English and Irish folksong settings of a previous generation, these pleasant arrangements are more elaborate and sophisticated, without veering into tackiness.
Philip Lane (b. 1950), who is credited as producer of this disc, has also been active on the commercial music scene. His Three Spanish Dances (1981) do, I’m afraid, step over a bit into the realm of commercial schlock. But they do avoid the clichés associated with the “Spanish sound,” for the most part, and the first one, “Malaguena,” is actually quite nice.
Jill Crowther is an oboist active in London. Her performances animate these pieces with bright good cheer. The versatile Alan Cuckston has pursued a career extending from playing early music on the harpsichord and forte-piano to conducting and performing music of the 20th century. He leads this varied program with the best of taste. While none of these pieces may be a major masterpiece, they comprise more than an hour of enjoyable music.