Howarth oboe
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Recordings to celebrate the world of the oboe

The best laid plans...
by Althea Ifeka
Althea Ifeka describes the evolution of her plans for the CD,
leading up to the first day of recording in London on July 7th, 2005.
She did not know that others had a different agenda for that day.

As double reed players, we do not find the idea of an oboe-and-piano or a bassoon-and-piano duo to be in any way unusual (although it sometimes seems that way to concert promoters, a few of whom appear only to schedule such recitals in synchronicity with visitations by Halley's Comet!). However, I think that even we would agree that an oboe-and-harpsichord duo is a rarity on the concert platform, particularly when the oboe is a modern rather than a Baroque instrument.

For both harpsichordist Katharine May and myself, our duo is an outworking of an interest in Baroque music which was developed in childhood. Whilst I played trio sonatas and recorder consort music every Monday evening for years with friends in Australia, Katharine was studying the piano in Nottingham, but finding herself constantly drawn to the music of Bach, Scarlatti and early classical composers. When I returned to England to take my A-Levels, my teacher Valerie Darke had changed from the modern to the Baroque oboe, and was firmly established in the London period-instrument scene. We therefore spent a lot of time over the next few years working hard on Baroque style, whilst continuing to explore the interest in contemporary music which I had inherited from my Australian teacher, Sharman Pretty, who had herself been a pupil of Heinz Holliger.

At the time of being invited on to the Countess of Munster Musical Trust Recital Scheme in 1992, I was in partnership with another musician who doubled on both piano and harpsichord. At the end of the first year on the Scheme I was struck by the contrast in the number of engagements I was offered for the two combinations: thirteen oboe-and-harpsichord recitals contrasted with just one for oboe and piano. That gave me to think that it was helpful to offer something a little more unusual to concert promoters. In my second year on the Scheme I began my partnership with Katharine, and since then we have developed a large number of programmes covering a range of national styles from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 20th centuries.

We soon decided to add the lower oboes into our programmes, which has proved to be a point of real interest to audiences. Original repertoire for oboe d'amore or cor anglais with harpsichord is almost non-existent, so we looked at the Bach viola da gamba sonatas. After much discussion we chose BWV 1028, and Katharine transcribed her part down a minor third from D to B major. The gamba part was left in D major with an adjustment of the clef to make it suitable for the oboe d'amore. The range fitted perfectly, apart from the occasional low note in the final movement; the only shortcoming is that in addition to being obliged to play most of the sonata in B major, Katharine has the delightful task of wrestling with the harmonically complex third movement in that well-known Baroque key, G sharp minor. Meanwhile, I coast along in the relatively easy keys of D major and B minor: exactly the way things should be done!

The success of this transcription encouraged us to find something for the cor anglais, and we settled on another gamba sonata - BWV 1027. Many people will know this in its version for two flutes and continuo in G-major (BWV 1039). In the viola da gamba version (which is an arrangement made by Bach himself) the gamba takes the second flute part, whilst the right hand of the harpsichord plays the first flute part. We thought that B flat major would exactly fit the cor anglais' range, and found a version of the trio sonata in that key arranged for two recorders. Katharine plays from that keyboard part, whilst my part has gone through a more complicated transposition.

In the original version of our evening recital programme "Johann Sebastian", we played both of these sonatas in addition to the little G minor sonata BWV 1020. Between them we played two twentieth-century pieces, one of which was Stephen Dodgson's Suite in D; this programme did not contain any continuo sonatas at all, and it ended up forming the nucleus of our CD repertoire.

When we began discussions with Jeremy Polmear of Oboe Classics early in 2005, he was adamant that the repertoire for the disc should be artistically and intellectually coherent. This meant that we explored two completely different programme themes and repertoire lists before we finally decided on a disc of obbligato sonatas (wherein the oboe and harpsichord parts are of equal complexity and importance) from the 18th and 20th centuries. I had mentioned to Jeremy the role of Lady Barbirolli (Evelyn Rothwell) and Valda Aveling - our oboe-and-harpsichord duo predecessors - in inspiring a number of works for the combination, and he suggested that we include them in the programme. These works included the Dodgson, Gordon Jacob's Sonatina, and Elizabeth Maconchy's Three Bagatelles.

Once the repertoire was settled and the recording arrangements made, Jeremy and I sallied forth in May 2005 to interview Lady Barbirolli in her home in north London. We found her to be in excellent form. Well into her tenth decade, she was full of recollections and anecdotes about the past, and had a keen enjoyment of her garden, of which she gave us a tour. She talked about her partnership with Valda, and a great deal about working closely with Gordon Jacob as he wrote a number of pieces for the oboe. She and Valda gave a recital at the Purcell Room in London in 1972; it transpires that Dodgson, Maconchy and Head all presented the duo with pieces which were premièred at this concert, complemented by some Baroque sonatas. We were very interested to hear about the piece by Michael Head, and a trip to Howarth's the oboe shop located Siciliana, which we have used as the closing item on the CD.

It was decided that we would use Richard and Susanne Hughes of Meridian Records to record and produce the master disc at their usual venue - St Edward the Confessor Church in Mottingham, south-east London - which has a wonderful acoustic. We eventually settled on three days in July to record the whole thing: Thursday the 7th, Friday the 8th and Saturday the 9th. I must confess that I might do things differently next time I record: seven or eight hours a day for three days on a double reed instrument was a really long, hard blow. Anyway, a lot of discussion went into the planning of the session times, and I'm very glad that it did. We decided to record basically from midday to 7 p.m. each day, which would allow Katharine and myself time to arrive at the venue without having to get up at the crack of dawn or spending too much time travelling during the rush hour. Our plan on the first day was to arrive at 10.30 to set up, tune and settle the harpsichord. Had we decided to start any sooner, it's possible that I might never have made it there.

When I arrived at my local station in east London on Thursday July 7th, I was just in time to hear an announcement that there had been a complete power failure on the underground system, which sounded rather implausible, bearing in mind the fact that the system uses more than one power station. Feeling suspicious I therefore took the overground train into Fenchurch St. station, and gave thanks as we travelled into London that I was not on the tube: we passed train after train at a complete standstill stranded on the tracks. As we approached Shadwell and the Aldgate area, the sky was filled with helicopters, and it was clear that something was up. Outside the station all was chaos, with many roads roped off and a considerable police presence. I decided to try to get a taxi from Tower Hill to London Bridge station, and unbelievably I got one within five minutes, as someone made way for me at a street corner where we hailed the same cab at the same time, a piece of un-Londoner-like courtesy which absolutely astonished me, and from which I still haven't completely recovered! Anyway, after many detours my taxi driver and I made it to London Bridge, where I was able to board another overground train to Mottingham. En route it became clear through the conversations of other passengers that London had suffered a major terrorist attack. Needless to say I was late for my own sessions (the cardinal musician's sin), arriving at about 11.30 a.m., but at least I made it there, unlike some of my fellow citizens, who unfortunately will never have the opportunity of travelling into work again.

Once we had all calmed down, settled in and begun recording, it became apparent that things would not proceed as expected. The four explosions in central London meant that air traffic was re-routed away from the centre and over south London. We suddenly found ourselves under a flight path, and this made our task increasingly difficult. Take after take of good material had to be discarded owing to aircraft noise. I had serious doubts at the end of the second day whether we could complete the recording in time, and spent an almost completely sleepless night thinking about it. However, we did just manage to complete everything with an extra hour of recording time: at 8 p.m. on the final day the recording was wrapped and the sessions successfully completed.

Making From Leipzig to London has been a wonderful challenge at every stage of the proceedings, be it the planning, the recording or the writing of programme notes for the booklet. I am delighted that the disc has been completed, and I hope that people will enjoy listening to it. However, it does have a poignancy attached to it that I never anticipated: it will forever be linked in my mind with the tragic and unforgettable events that July day on the London Underground.

Copyright: Althea Ifeka, 2006

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