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Recordings to celebrate the world of the oboe

The Magnificent Seven
Jeremy Polmear talks to George Caird talks about the works for oboe and strings on the CD 'An English Renaissance'

photo of George Caird I never thought Western movies and 20th Century oboe chamber music had much in common, but in his booklet programme notes, George Caird describes the five works for oboe and strings on the CD – by Maconchy, Bliss, Britten, Gow and Moeran, together with those by Finzi and Bax – as the magnificent seven. I wondered what the connection was between seven star professionals coming together in a common cause and this collection of music. How did these terrific works appear, apparently out of nowhere?

“There are always precursors,” says George. “In England we had Stanford, Parry, Holst and Hurlstone, as well as the great chamber works of Elgar; but mainly we looked to Germany for our chamber music. It was World War I that changed everything – after 1918 there was a new creative energy in all areas of the performing arts. Recordings were appearing, the numbers of public concerts was on the increase – it must have been an exciting time.”

“And for oboe music the catalyst was Léon Goossens, who showed what the oboe could do, and thanks to his recordings and recitals on both sides of the Atlantic, became something of a household name. He was also a great teacher, encouraging younger players through the Conservatoires, helping to build up an infrastructure of players, enthusiasts, promoters - and of course, composers for the oboe.”

So these seven composers, then, happened to be in the right place at the right time? “Yes, but it is more than that. What they also had in common was an English compositional style which went way back to the 16th Century, with composers like Tallis and Byrd, who wrote choral music of exquisite feeling and phrasing – an origin, also, of the haunting melodic lines of the Vaughan Williams oboe concerto. But as well as this ‘singing’ quality, the music was polyphonic, with several equally important musical lines weaving together. It is noticeable that these seven pieces all have sophisticated and independent lines for the string players.”

An English Renaissance CD cover Hence the CD title, ‘An English Renaissance’? “Yes, it’s a new Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s that looks back to the 16th Century one. And in the CD cover picture – Duncan Grant’s ‘Dancers’ the figures seem neo-classic, invoking perhaps the spirit of a past reborn. Also there are five equal dancers, not a soloist and a corps de ballet.”

So the seven have much in common, but one of the pleasures of the movie is the development of the individual characters - how Charles Bronson, say, or James Coburn react to the situation they find themselves in. I asked George to differentiate between the individual pieces.

“Elizabeth Maconchy’s Quintet is Modernist from the word go. She breaks new ground, with repeated figures giving an obsessive quality to the music. But she is steeped in those 16th Century techniques, and the open fifths of the opening add a mediaeval quality to the music. Like her teacher, Vaughan Williams, she adds folk songs into the mix, and the last movement sometimes sounds like that other folk-influenced composer, Bartok. Maconchy was interested in Eastern European music, and studied in Prague. This is an early piece, and a precursor to the series of String Quartets for which she is best known.”

The second composer, Arthur Bliss, is not really known for anything much these days, I ventured. Was he ever? George disagrees. “In his day he was very well known as a virtuoso composer, with great facility and ease. This popularity may have contributed to his being made Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953. And he’s written some great music – the ballet ‘Checkmate’, the Colour Symphony, the television opera ‘Tobias and the Angel’ and a superb Piano Concerto. His music is overdue for a re-exploration, and this CD is a small contribution.”

This all rings true, because this piece is astonishingly good. The writing for all the instruments is brilliant and inventive, the slow sections are moving, and the fast sections are the kind of music you just can’t sit still to. There are parts of the last movement that could accompany the Seven as they galloped over the plain – and indeed Bliss has written film music too. Overall, there is the sense of a large vision in this music. “Yes, he was very influenced by music beyond our shores, particularly French music. And his father was American; he spent time in the States as a young man; perhaps there is a jazz influence there. And there is an Irish Jig too. This music is just brimming with ideas.”

By contrast, Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet has a very stark opening march, beginning with just a solo cello. “Again, we’re back to the Renaissance” says George. “Britten had just won the Cobbett Prize with another Phantasy, and the brief had been to recreate the spirit of the Renaissance ‘Fancy’, with a contrapuntal element and equal interest in all parts. This is such an original piece of work, from an unbelievably gifted imagination. Like his other early instrumental works – he had just written the Sinfonietta, Opus 1 – it’s as if he is testing out his instrumental muscles, to appear again in orchestral scores from operas such as ‘Albert Herring’ to orchestral music such as the ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ – a joy to play, and very demanding. He also had an uncanny sense of the essential qualities of the instrument, and liked writing, for example, gruff low notes as a favoured characteristic. I think he wanted the variable qualities of the oboe to be celebrated, and not disguised into something beautiful but bland.”

photo of Dorothy Gow (playing a mandolin) If Britten is the best-known composer on this CD, then Dorothy Gow is perhaps more akin to the member of the Magnificent Seven whose name nobody can quite remember. “She was known in her day,” says George. “She was a guiding light in the Composer’s group at the Royal College of Music, to which Elizabeth Maconchy and Elizabeth Lutyens also belonged. She was painfully shy, and perhaps didn’t push herself as much as some others; so it’s great that in her researches on Women Composers, Diana Ambache re-discovered the piece and it’s back in the public domain. Gow may have been shy, but she was adventurous too; of all these composers, she was the only one to go and study with Second Viennese School composers, and write this serial piece.”

I was a bit surprised to hear this, because I am no Schoenberg fan, feeling that, at its most extreme, serial music went up an intellectual cul-de-sac, losing us, the audience, in the process. “There are some pieces, for example Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet of 1921, that despite being wonderful works, are hard work for players and listeners alike. Yet here is Gow, loyal to the tenets of serialism - the initial tune contains all the different intervals - yet able to use it to communicate a strong emotional message, and - yet again - singing lines and polyphonic writing. However, she couldn’t resist ending the piece on a tonal chord!”

There is nothing serial about the final piece on the CD, the Fantasy by E J Moeran. The pastoral opening of this piece is the most traditional of all; but it soon moves on, and listening to it feels like going on a journey. “Like Bliss, Moeran had an incredible facility,” says George, “but unlike him, his career never really worked out. Nevertheless, this is a lovely, lyrical work, in a popular, singing style, and he never loses the common touch. The music explores a wide range of emotions, always in an interesting way. It never resorts to pattern, to cliché, because in a Fantasy the composer has to create a structure from his or her own imagination – there is no standard format. This is partly why all the pieces on the CD sound so fresh, so committed.”

photo of George Caird, Jane Salmon and Louise Williams The playing - by ‘George Caird and friends’ is committed too, so I asked about the friends – how did he get to know such great string players? “Well I married one of them” he laughs. That’s Jane Salmon, the cellist. “And the others, as well as being well-known in the string chamber music world, really are friends. For example I was at the Royal College with Louise Williams, the violist. And violinist Simon Blendis is married to my brother’s wife’s twin sister!”

But what about the two pieces not on the CD - the Finzi Interlude (recorded by Emily Paithorpe on ‘Though Lovers be Lost’) and the Bax Quintet (recorded by Goossens himself on ‘Rare Goossens’)? “By a strange coincidence I’ve just been asked to perform these” says George, “and I love them both. The Finzi is superficially of the English Pastoral type, but underneath there’s a very personal, unique feeling. And the Bax, written in 1922, is the earliest of the Quintets written for Goossens, perhaps helping to show the others what could be done.”

Which is the way things often work. But did these composers in turn show others what could be done? What came next? “We can’t be certain,” says George, “more research needs to be done. Evelyn Rothwell - Lady Barbirolli - was an influential commissioner of new works for the oboe, but the next big burst of commissioning came in the 1960s and 70s with Heinz Holliger in Switzerland, and my own teacher Janet Craxton in the UK.”

This set me wondering about the influences on George’s own playing. “Firstly, Goossens. I remember my mother getting me, age 10, to listen to him on the radio. But I actually think it was one note from him that really got me started on the oboe. It was the first note of the Albinoni B flat Concerto - a B flat - in Oxford Town Hall. That note went right through me, it was an intoxicating sound; bright, slightly nasal, but full of singing. Not svelte, it was like champagne. One note did it; maybe I was an addict waiting to be hooked!”

“Then of course, my teacher Janet Craxton was a major influence – her rigour; she taught me to only accept the best, to be mercilessly self-critical (as she was of herself). Her charismatic playing, too, had a great effect on me.”

“My other influences are listening to the players of my youth – Sidney Sutcliffe, Terence McDonagh, Peter Graeme, Michael Dobson, Roger Lord in the LSO, and many other great players, showing a wide variety of playing styles, making me see that we must each of us find the style and sound that works for us. And here I am, having taught for many years at the Royal Academy and now here at the Birmingham Conservatoire. And I’m proud to be part of the tradition that is doing the same for the young players of today.”

Yes, George is a teacher; for some, as I point out to him, a full-time job. He’s also a freelance performer, ditto; he is also Principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire, possibly a double-time job. And also, recently, once again a father, which some would say could be a full-time job. How can he juggle all these things without going mad? “Well, there was one time when I found myself sitting on the sofa with my daughter Lizzie, doing Conservatoire business, and making a reed all at the same time! But actually, I think all this multi-tasking is complementary, and it’s the way to live a life. This is what we do here in Birmingham; help talented young people to realise their many potentials. Why cordon yourself off?”

© 2004 George Caird and Jeremy Polmear on www.oboeclassics.com

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