Jeremy Polmear talks to Emily Pailthorpe about the music on the CD
JP: How did you get the idea, the concept for this CD?
EP: The period between the two World Wars is a time that really speaks to me. My life has been relatively stable, in the sense of not living through world wars, not living through uncertainty. When September 11th came along, that was the first shock in what had been a relatively stable world, in spite of the Cold War. But I have always wondered, reading the poetry and contemporary accounts of that time, how people could continue to function, even thrive, and create, under the spectre of loss and death that they did. I find it reaffirming; it is a period that has really fascinated me. So it was wonderful to come across music from that time. It all started with the Finzi Interlude; I knew nothing about Finzi or his circumstances when he wrote the piece - I got to know the piece before I did any of the backup reading. Then when I did read about him I was amazed to see that everything was there in the music - the sense of loss, and also of hope. The other pieces reflect different aspects of this fraught time.
JP: When, as an oboist, I first came across the Britten Temporal Variations, I was rather disappointed with it. It is a relatively early work, with a theme of just two notes, and a bizarre set of seemingly unconnected variations, and I wasn't surprised to hear that it had only one performance in Britten's lifetime. How wrong was I?
EP: The Britten Temporal Variations is, to me, one of the most amazing pieces in our oboe repertoire. It has the breadth and scope of an orchestral piece - yet it is written for a wind recital. The colour demands that it puts upon the oboe, if you don't go there, could result in quite a dull performance. You need to go where Britten wants to take you, and make the oboe sound the way he needed it to sound, or the overall effect won't come across. What amazes me about this piece is how well it is received by audiences if they know what they are listening to. This was brought home to me this summer, when Julian and I played it at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival. We were told we were playing in a series called Musik auf den Lande and it would be in Churches around the area, so we devised quite a spiritual programme - with Bach, and the Temporal Variations as a centrepiece. But when we showed up at the concert venue, we realised we were going to be playing to a bunch of picnickers, and we thought 'Heaven help us, here are these people trying to enjoy their Sunday afternoon picnic, with their children running around, and here we are shoving the Temporal Variations down their throats! So there was nothing for it, we had to dust off our German, and explain that this crazy piece was going to take them to places they hadn't expected to go. And it was so exciting, because people came back afterwards and said 'oh and I heard mothers screaming, I heard shattering glass.' Because we got their expectations up before the performance, and got them in the right place to listen to it they were right there. It's a piece that really grips people. But if you don't know what you're in for, it's maybe a rather rough ride.
JP: And I heard, in the second variation not just a march, not just a military march, but a goose-stepping march. Was that your intention?
EP: Yes; we wanted it to be absolutely rhythmic and uncompromising.
JP: And there is a lot of anger in the piece too.
EP: There was a lot to be angry about. The oboe is not always supposed to sound beautiful in this piece; sometimes, as in the Polka [click to hear, Ed], it is supposed to sound sinister, devious and slimy. There is a lot of anger in this piece which is why the final Resolution is so surprising, and so effective.
JP: You have already said that the Finzi Interlude was the piece that started you off. What was it about this piece that particularly spoke to you?
EP: It was the tension between the rhythmic percussion in the piano part and the searching quality of the oboe part. It's like the oboe is looking for something, it keeps pulling away, it doesn't want to be resigned, and there is something about that feeling when you're you're playing it - you're pulling, you're pushing, you're wanting to go some place better, and you keep being pulled back, and that really spoke to me. It's a very integrated piece, and the version you hear on the CD was recorded, basically, in one take, which is why I hope it sounds more like a live performance than a recording session.
JP: looking at the Ravel arrangement for oboe and piano; what surprised me about this piece was that no-one had thought of doing it before...
EP: Exactly. We had the other four pieces lined up, and we were looking for something French, influenced by the First World War, and we realised that the piece that really would fit was the Tombeau de Couperin. My husband Daniel had previously done arrangements for our chamber group Conchord; this used to be a common performance practise, in the 50s you would hear Bach in orchestral versions, but now maybe we have more limited ideas as to what's possible and what's acceptable. But this idea I think by anybody's standards is very acceptable. What we found was so interesting when we came to work on it, Julian and I - I knew the orchestral version, and Julian knew the piano version - is that they are such different pieces. The piano version is nostalgic, with a totally different feel to the brightness and upness of the orchestral version. Coming at it together, we've found something here that captures the tone colours of the orchestral version - the oboe is so well suited to this piece, and Ravel used it a lot - yet it has the quietness and the watery colours that the piano version has, without the big orchestral sound, which is sometimes maybe a little inappropriate for the material. So we are thrilled with what Daniel came up with.
JP: In the slow middle movements you do all the repeats. At first I wondered if that made them too long, but then I saw that they were a kind of meditation on his dead friends...
EP: Yes, there is a reverie quality about them. Ravel takes you into his own time, and his time moves more slowly.
JP: In your CD programme notes to the Henri Dutilleux Sonata, you say that the third movement is lighter in style, but all I can hear is a moment of cautious optimism creeping in, and it soon gets swamped. I have a recording by Maurice Bourgue, and his third movement really is lighter, as if to say 'well enough of that, let's take the dog for a walk.' He gets very perky, whereas your seriousness of purpose...
EP: [laughs] I never falter!
JP: It seems to me that both versions are equally valid.
EP: I'm sure that Maurice Bourgue being French and living in Paris, is much closer to the real sense of Dutilleux, but it does have that beautiful, carefree sense of walking down the boulevard, which is surprising that it comes out of the darkness around it.
JP: Would you agree, that after the first tune, it darkens up again?
EP: Yes, there's a passing cloud that goes overhead, and then it's back to the lightness, and it has a very upbeat ending - even when I play it!
JP: How did you decide that the Eugène Goossens concerto related to the concept of the CD?
EP: The piece is full of the conflict between the pastoral and the industrial, so it completely fits in with the time period of the changing Britain moving forward in the new century. It has a nostalgia about it, which binds all these pieces together. It also was nice to put in a piece that is blatantly virtuosic, and show off the oboe a little bit. What was such a lovely surprise about this piece - I've done it in recitals for a while because it works so well, but I've always been slightly sheepish about the fact that I was playing an orchestral concerto with a piano - was to find out that in fact this was the original version! It makes such a lovely rhapsodic recital piece, and part of the reason for recording it here in this version is that I wanted people to feel able to go and perform it.
JP: It seems to me that the piece has many good moments, but it is rather episodic, especially towards the end, with the cadenza....
EP: Yes, as with any time period, composers are going to write in different ways - not everything can be a War Requiem. The piece reflects Goossens' childhood, and it also looks forward in that 'pushed march' in the middle. It is a lighter piece, it has more joy, and when you are looking for pieces to reflect off each other, when putting together a whole, that's a very important part.
© 2004, Emily Pailthorpe and Jeremy Polmear on www.oboeclassics.com
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