Vaughan Williams’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings: a guide to the best recordings
Wednesday, July 5, 2023
Vaughan Williams’s 1944 Concerto for oboe and strings is one of few such works to maintain a foothold in the repertoire. David Threasher listens to a selection of the available recordings
The oboe concerto as a form fell virtually into oblivion between Mozart’s coming-of-age and the height of the Second World War. After the Salzburger’s sole oboe concerto, K314 of 1777 – long better known in a version for flute – the Romantics all but abandoned concertos for any instruments other than the piano and the violin. Workaday oboe concertos for didactic use continued to emanate piecemeal from the Paris Conservatoire, running alongside developments in the instrument’s construction that led the Conservatoire system to be the style of oboe favoured universally by the early years of the last century (at least outside Vienna). Thus armed with a modern, reliable incarnation of the instrument, a new generation of players inspired a string of worthwhile works from a range of composers; but it was Vaughan Williams who emerged in 1944 as the unlikely creator of the work that re-established the oboe concerto as a viable form after its century and a half or more of obscurity. Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto in D major – the one such work of the period equal in stature to the Vaughan Williams – followed a little over a year later.
Léon Goossens (1897-1988) was the oboist who raised the instrument to renewed prominence in the UK. His expressiveness and artistry, allied to a refined technique and notable sweetness of tone, inspired a string of works beginning with Bax’s Oboe Quintet (1922) and including concertos by his brother Eugene (1927) and Gordon Jacob (1933). Even Elgar tried his hand, embarking in 1930 upon a suite of which only a single movement has achieved any currency, albeit in an orchestration by Jacob.
Vaughan Williams started work on an early version of the Concerto in A minor for oboe and strings immediately upon completing the Fifth Symphony in 1943, and indeed putting to good use discarded sketches for the symphony’s Scherzo. He offered the concerto to Henry Wood for inclusion in the 1944 Promenade Concerts, recently relocated to the Royal Albert Hall following the bombing of the Queen’s Hall. ‘I am so sorry for the delay,’ wrote the composer, ‘which is due to the fact that when I had, as I thought, finished it, I began to re-write it.’ Wood initially turned the work down for the Proms, thinking it unsuited to the cavernous Albert Hall and its resonant acoustic, but shortly afterwards changed his mind. In any case, late that June the Luftwaffe had begun bombarding the capital with its new missile, the ‘doodlebug’ or V‑1 flying bomb, meaning that the remainder of the 1944 Proms season had to be abandoned, along with the premiere of the Oboe Concerto, planned for July 5.
The concerto wouldn’t in the event make its Proms debut until 1990, in a performance by its most assiduous latter-day champion, Nicholas Daniel. Meanwhile, Goossens gave the belated premiere in Liverpool on September 30, 1944, with the Liverpool Philharmonic under Malcolm Sargent at Philharmonic Hall, in a concert that also included his brother’s terse single-movement (and still underestimated) concerto. Goossens recorded the Vaughan Williams at Kingsway Hall in 1952 with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Walter Susskind but this wasn’t issued at the time and ultimately appeared on a mono LP as late as 1963, coupled with an oboe d’amore concerto by Bach (HMV, 9/63, 10/77).
Goossens’s recording has apparently never been remastered for CD but it is available as an audio transfer on YouTube, demonstrating the traits for which he was renowned, not least a rounded tone enriched by a deep, constant vibrato. His approach to the solo line is free and personal, his rhythm rhapsodic rather than literal, once or twice in the opening movement leading to lapses in ensemble as he leaves Susskind and the Philharmonia standing. His Minuet is impish, his tempo for the scherzo finale more restrained than was to become the norm, although he refuses to linger in the slow episodes.
Nevertheless, his long association with the work is evident in his unassailable command of its somewhat unconventional architecture. The first-movement ‘Rondo pastorale’ (Allegro moderato) opens with a rising pentatonic figure in the strings that is to set the tone for the whole work; over this the soloist enters with the principal melody, which soon gives way to the first of a number of brief cadenzas. A change of mood comes with a jauntier tune (at fig C) that is then supplanted by a more angular staccato figure. Variants of this group of themes – taking in major, minor and modal characteristics – convey the Rondo to its hushed close.
The brief Minuet’s outwardly simplistic, almost naive melody masks a harmonic language that delves much deeper than it might on the surface suggest and frames a Musette in which soloist and strings trade drones against a playful backdrop. The finale is the longest and most complex of the three movements, the astringent athleticism of its opening scherzo music giving way first to a sustained hymnlike passage before a harmonically unstable transition (fig L) and then, following another cadenza, to an extended slow section heralded by a Hindemith-like sequence of chords for full strings, divided into nine parts and double-stopped, leading to an ecstatic cantilena for the soloist (Doppio più lento). A recapitulation of the scherzo music (Doppio più mosso) is once more interrupted by a richly scored Lento that provides the work’s emotional climax – ‘one of the rare times when Vaughan Williams exposed his inner personal feelings quite so brazenly’, as Michael Kennedy wrote (7/88). After a final return of the movement’s opening figures, the rising pentatonic motif from the concerto’s opening brings it to a serene conclusion.
The Oboe Concerto’s challenges lie not principally in the technical requirements of negotiating the notes – although it falls by no means easily under the fingers – but in the stamina required to sustain its shifting moods over 19 or 20 minutes with only very few brief opportunities to rest the lips and renew the breath. And Vaughan Williams’s demand after all that to close the piece with a top D played pianissimo continues to strike fear into oboists. Reviewing the concerto in March 1956, Lionel Salter suggested that ‘it may have no particularly memorable themes’: as one who battled with it as a young oboe student, I disagree wholeheartedly. The opening melody is unforgettable, the Minuet ingratiating and the climactic Lento one of the most heartfelt passages in the oboe repertoire. It can’t be just the paucity of concertos for the instrument that continues to draw oboists to it on recordings, gratifyingly featuring a good handful of orchestral principals alongside each generation’s oboe superstars – to whatever extent such stars may be considered super in the rarefied double-reed firmament – and increasingly from further afield than the work’s native England.
It isn’t clear why Goossens’s pioneering recording of the concerto waited for more than a decade to be issued but in the meantime his former pupil (at the Royal College of Music) Evelyn Rothwell gave the record-buying audience its first chance to hear the work. Her adherence to the solo line is more faithful than her teacher’s, resulting in less differentiation of character between sections; her Minuet, too, comes across as a little po-faced in comparison. Rothwell’s husband John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra provide the accompaniment, well-disciplined if a touch bass-light.
Additionally, a few years before Rothwell’s recording, Janet Craxton performed the concerto in a BBC studio concert (April 11, 1952) recently resurrected by Oboe Classics. Listen beyond the prominent surface noise – a producer’s note gives the colourful information that ‘the [acetate] discs had to be cleaned of fungus’ – and you’re treated to the fastest interpretation of all, coming in at a little over 16 minutes. Craxton was at the time principal oboe in Barbirolli’s Hallé Orchestra and doesn’t share Goossens’s depth of vibrato but clearly had her own deeply individual view of a work that was still to a large extent unfamiliar new music – and her efforts were sufficient to secure the subsequent co-dedication, with tenor Wilfred Brown, of Vaughan Williams’s Ten Blake Songs (1957). This recording of the concerto could never be anyone’s library choice but, as that producer’s note concludes, ‘the interpretation soars’.
INTO THE SEVENTIES
Goossens’s recording held its ground for over a decade following its belated appearance in 1963 but three subsequent recordings that have maintained a place in the discography emerged over the space of just a few years in the second half of the 1970s. John Williams was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s principal oboist and offers a slightly less forceful performance of the solo line, with playing that comes across in places as gently musing where others may be more assertive. Nevertheless, even without taking Goossens’s rhythmic liberties, Williams brings out the playfulness of the finale. Advances in recording techniques mean that the subtle craftsmanship of Vaughan Williams’s voice-leading can be heard with renewed clarity in the inner lines of the string accompaniment. If the Philharmonia and the LSO emphasised the kinship between the concerto and the Fifth Symphony, the Bournemouth orchestra’s full-bodied tone also brings to mind the folkish sound world of the Greensleeves Fantasia.
Daniel Barenboim’s English Chamber Orchestra offer truly high-class string-playing for Neil Black (in 1975 the ECO’s principal oboist), with bigger bass and an almost mystical halo around the orchestral sound. Black’s vibrato-light tone is ideally focused throughout and Barenboim’s shaping of the accompaniment is exquisite, even if some rhythmic inflexibility in the final movement prevents the music from breathing as it might in the faster sections. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Neville Marriner are recorded more spaciously and with slightly less presence for Celia Nicklin, Black’s successor as Academy principal, who contrasts a halting, enigmatic Minuet with a fleet-footed finale that captures its quicksilver qualities, turning almost menacing in the run-up to the first cadenza (just before the Doppio più lento). And her final pianissimo top D is delectable.
THE DIGITAL ERA
Few recordings manage completely to disguise the audible evidence of oboe-playing – snatched breaths and the clicking of the instrument’s keywork. Trevor Harvey found additionally that Maurice Bourgue was too closely recorded by Nimbus, his playing ‘mostly insensitive and loud’. This recording long had a reputation for the continual clack of Bourgue’s keys, which, when accompanied with efficiency rather than imagination by the English String Orchestra in the mushy acoustic of the Great Hall of Birmingham University, makes for a less than attractive option. TH considered Bourgue ‘not in sympathy with this piece’, and the oboist’s rhythmic rigidity and under-characterised climactic Lento would appear to support this view. Roger Winfield is more attuned to the flow of the work, his long-breathed cantabile in the Rondo adding half a minute to Bourgue’s timing. Richard Hickox matches Barbirolli in shaping the accompaniment con amore. Like Nicklin, Winfield opts for something more subdued and equivocal in the Minuet and the finale’s Lento is beautifully done, although some of the faster music in the outer movements suffers from minor ensemble lapses.
David Theodore displays some gorgeous pianissimo playing, albeit counterbalanced by an occasional reluctance fully to exploit fortes and fortissimos in the Rondo. He restores a sense of buoyancy to the Minuet and responds to the finale’s shifts of mood without resorting to extremes of tempo – the Doppio più lento is ravishingly sustained. His consistently silky, even tone marks this performance out as something of a hidden gem among a collection of Vaughan Williams’s concertante works with Bryden Thomson and the LSO that is otherwise of rather variable quality. Julia Girdwood matches Theodore’s richness of tone in a performance characterised by brisk tempos and slightly perfunctory accompaniment from Robert Haydon Clark’s Consort of London.
Jonathan Small, in 1990 the RLPO’s principal oboist, demonstrates that a go-ahead tempo for the Rondo need not preclude the mood of ‘pastoral contemplation’ identified by Michael Jameson in his review. The finale receives a performance of notable virtuosity and architectural cogency, aided by the unerring instincts in this music of Vernon Handley. Small’s rapid vibrato and reedy tone contrast with Theodore’s creamier sound and he is recorded more spaciously, the Liverpool strings less full‑throated than, say, Marriner’s ASMF or Thomson’s LSO. For the creamiest tone so far, though – and for strings played in the ‘old world’ style that happily lingered in Eastern Europe – turn to the veteran Hungarian player Lajos Lencsés and the Budapest Strings under Béla Bánfalvi. This is a beautifully shaped performance and a reading of notable fidelity to the score. If pianissimos don’t seem ideally hushed, that is the result of a closely miked recording rather than any reluctance on the part of the soloist.
Ruth Bolister’s performance comes across as rather matter-of-fact in comparison – although the Minuet receives a charmingly perky performance – with a plain-speaking accompaniment from the Elgar Chamber Orchestra under Stephen Bell. Her disc is valuable, nevertheless, for taking in the principal works for oboe and orchestra inspired by Léon Goossens: the Vaughan Williams, Eugene Goossens and Gordon Jacob concertos, and Jacob’s orchestration of Elgar’s Soliloquy, the surviving shard from his planned suite.
Not surprisingly, the pace of recording activity has picked up over the past couple of decades, at least as far as Vaughan Williams’s Oboe Concerto is concerned. Of two recordings made within a few months of each other in 2010, Emily Pailthorpe’s displays an acute sensitivity to piano and pianissimo markings, the oboe treated in the mix as part of the ensemble rather than spotlit as the soloist, giving a true feeling of chamber music-making. If the ECO under Benjamin Wallfisch sound disappointingly thin in places – a far cry from their glory days under Barenboim – the reading is nonetheless crowned by Pailthorpe’s perfect closing top D. A matter of months later, Stéphane Rancourt stepped out from his principal’s chair with the Hallé Orchestra for a studio recording of uncommonly fine characterisation. The evident care taken over such moments as the change of mood at fig C is a case in point, as is the sublimely sustained Lento in the finale. The well-upholstered accompaniment under Mark Elder is artfully shaped and minutely observed.
Nicholas Daniel recorded the concerto in 2014 with the Britten Sinfonia, a highlight of his career-long association with the work. It was with the Vaughan Williams that Daniel triumphed in the final of the second BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 1980 and his links with it extended to his being the soloist not only at the work’s eventual Proms premiere (with the City of London Sinfonia under Hickox on August 8, 1990, more than 46 years after being originally programmed) but also at its second Proms performance – last year, with the Royal Northern Sinfonia under Dinis Sousa. Such unparalleled experience gives rise to a recording of unsurpassed authority: everything feels as if it has simply dropped into the right place, with nothing seeming forced. Daniel is more measured than some, for example, as the music builds in animation at fig C, and there is a rare sense of ecstasy to the Lento as the finale reaches its apogee. Andrew Achenbach praised Daniel’s ‘flawless discipline, liquid tone, exquisite chiaroscuro and seemingly superhuman breath control’, which just about says it all.
Following Rancourt and Daniel, the recording by Sarah Jeffrey with the Toronto SO under Peter Oundjian comes across as less gripping, for all Chandos’s widescreen sound in a large, atmospheric hall. Martin Daněk took first prize at the 2019 Prague Spring Competition performing the Vaughan Williams alongside Martin≤’s 1955 Concerto, with his winning performances appearing shortly afterwards on disc. There is much audience noise but Dan∆k is clearly an able and charismatic soloist, and the Prague Symphony Orchestra under Pavel Pe∑ina are enthusiastically responsive to the idiom, although a studio recording might have occasioned a greater degree of coordination and refinement.
THE FINAL CHOICE
Vaughan Williams’s Oboe Concerto has fared reasonably well on recordings, given its position slightly away from the centre of the repertoire and the difficulty of programming a 20-minute concertante work in performance. Few of the readings considered above will disappoint, although Janet Craxton’s is unlikely to appeal beyond her admirers and those interested in older performance styles, and Martin Dan∆k’s makes one look forward to recordings that more effectively display his abilities as his career blossoms from this promising start.
The one recording that stands out above all others comes perhaps unsurprisingly from today’s pre-eminent British oboist, Nicholas Daniel – the only soloist to direct the performance without the assistance of a conductor. He is almost matched in sensitivity and style by the Hallé’s Stéphane Rancourt and, in a rather older recording, David Theodore with the LSO. And for the view from abroad, Lajos Lencsés demonstrates that Vaughan Williams remains just as relevant to receptive musicians and audiences beyond his native shores.
A hidden gem
David Theodore; LSO / Bryden Thomson
Chandos has replaced much of its earlier Vaughan Williams catalogue with newer recordings but this 1988 performance of the concerto is not surpassed by its successor, for all that the rest of the set doesn’t maintain such a high standard. David Theodore lavishes silky tone on the solo line and Bryden Thomson’s LSO provide solid support.
The view from abroad
Lajos Lencsés; Budapest Strings / Béla Bánfalvi
Vaughan Williams’s music once laboured under the cliché that it didn’t ‘travel’ well but recordings such as this demonstrate the wrong-headedness of such opinions. For all their ‘old world’ sensibilities, the Hungarian strings sound as if they were born to play English music, and Lajos Lencsés shapes the solo line instinctively and tastefully.
A close second choice
Stéphane Rancourt; Hallé Orchestra / Mark Elder
The Hallé’s principal oboist impresses with his care for characterisation and a comprehension of the work’s trajectory that is rarely equalled. Mark Elder’s Hallé strings provide an accompaniment that is remarkable for its richness and concern for detail. The heavenly Lento at the work’s climax is just one among many breathtaking moments.
The Top Choice
Nicholas Daniel; Britten Sinfonia
A career-long association with the concerto makes Nicholas Daniel the ideal soloist. The authority with which the work’s challenges are surmounted, along with Daniel’s flowing virtuosity and buttery tone, make this an unforgettable performance. He inspires the Britten Sinfonia to give an architecturally cohesive and elegantly contoured accompaniment. Beautiful surround sound from Harmonia Mundi further adds to the attraction.
This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today