Although its antecedents, the shawms, were down-to-earth, in-your-face instruments, the modern form of the oboe is a sophisticated mechanism. In skilled hands it can be a more credible border-crosser, play more convincing jazz (Yusef Lateef, Karl Jenkins), blues (Lateef again), jazz-rock (Jenkins again) or prog-rock (Third Ear Band) than almost any other orchestral instrument. Like its cousins, such as the Indian shehnai, the Afghani sorna and the Palestinian mijwiz, it can be warm, sensuous, extrovert, exciting, as intimate, emotional and affectingly expressive as the human voice, but it can also sound all too desiccated. Some of the music here concentrates rather too much on the instrument’s shriller, drier timbral characteristics for my taste. That said, overall there is a satisfying range of moods, styles and sounds (though it is often the cor anglais that provides textural variety) and a good deal of accomplished playing and singing.
The most immediately attractive pieces are Into the Light (where the cor anglais conducts us from death to the afterlife, then entrusts us to the oboe, like Virgil handing Dante over to Beatrice) and the engaging Ostrich on the Plain. New Ground ingeniously develops variations on the lovely melody of Purcell’s A New Ground. The tightly-argued Diptych nods to Bach’s use of woodwind. Xas-Orion achieves an intriguing synthesis of two worlds, electronically transforming the sound of the oboe live, and deriving most of the computer’s output from the oboe.
Most of these works are rather stark and unaccommodating at first hearing, but repay the effort of getting to know them.