oboe by Howarth
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Recordings to celebrate the world of the oboe

Jeremy Polmear writes about how he started this CD label in 2002
(written 2003, updated 2009)

photo by Jenny Lowe of oboist Jeremy Polmear at the 2009 IDRS conference, Birmingham, UK. Like many players I've made recordings on various CD labels, but it had never occurred to me to start one of my own. So when Victoria Soames Samek suggested that I create 'Oboe Classics', a companion to 'Clarinet Classics' which she had been running for some ten years, my first thoughts were all the reasons why this was not a good idea.

Firstly, there is the general malaise in the classical recording industry, where even fairly well-known performers are finding their contracts not being renewed. Oboe CDs have always had a particularly hard time of it - launched with little publicity, languishing for a few years in the 'Instrumental - Collections' section of the record store, and then being deleted. Finally, what about money? The whole process is expensive, especially at the beginning - with no guarantee that I would get my money back, let alone make a profit.

But the idea wouldn't go away. I love making CDs of my own, and I know what valuable things they are to have. Maybe I could love creating CDs for others too. I had already designed web sites and sold CDs through them, so I knew how it worked. I've been around a bit and know many players; and I began to see that I was well placed to do it.

First I set about creating a look for the label. Howarth of London kindly let me use a picture of their XL oboe to go down that transparent bit on the left hand side of the CD case, and on the left of this web page. I had a logo designed, wrote a slogan ('Celebrating the world of the oboe') and started to map out the kind of CDs I might produce. I stopped when my list got to fifty - there was a lifetime's work there, and I saw what an incredible range of music was possible, using the oboe as a central focus.

I wanted my initial release to reflect this variety, so I decided to start with five titles. Three would be of music from different periods - Baroque, Romantic and Contemporary. One would be by an International soloist, and one would be something a bit unusual. But how was I going to find performers to fit these categories?

Baroque Spirit CD cover My first bit of luck was a happy chance. I was idly looking through a brochure from London's South Bank in the Autumn of 2001, and there was a recital of Baroque oboe music by a group called La Fontaine. They were young, Japanese, and I'd never heard of them; I didn't go along with any high expectations. I first began to warm to them when one of the oboists was introducing the very first item. His English was very rudimentary, but he actually managed to crack a joke, which I thought took great courage. And when they played their humour and commitment came out in the music too; by the end of the show they had that audience eating out of their hands. And the luck continued; they had just recorded a CD that was almost exactly like one I had in mind, with the same brilliant playing, as in this allegro by Fasch. But it was only available in Japan. So it became the first Oboe Classics CD.

and Clara Schumann CD cover Finding the performers for a Romantic CD was much easier - I chose myself and my wife and Duo partner Diana Ambache. We had already recorded the Schumann Op 94 Romances, and set about finding more pieces to make a satisfying collection. The most unusual ones in the final programme are Clara Schumann's Three violin Romances Op 22, which make worthy companions to Robert's pieces. The other distinctive item is Robert's Stüke im Volkston, five pieces originally written for the cello which I play on the cor anglais (english horn). They make a varied set, and contain quite the most beautiful lullaby I have ever heard.

New Ground CD cover For contemporary music, I had heard from Edwin Roxburgh of the work of Paul Goodey at Trinity College of Music, and went out to a concert at their Greenwich campus one evening to hear his piece Xas-Orion for oboe and electronics. Paul has researched for his doctorate in new ways of composing with the oboe and live electronics, and sure enough there he was, playing with a microphone, a computer and speakers, and you couldn't tell what was him and what the computer - it was as if a new instrument had been created. But it managed to be beautiful as well as cutting-edge. His CD contains no less than seven premières, including Edwin Roxburgh's own seminal work At the Still Point of the Turning World... for oboe with live delays and treatment. Specially written for this CD is Fox Woman by Cecilia McDowall for oboe and voice, a powerful and theatrical piece performed by Paul with Linda Hirst, who Berio described as the successor to Cathy Berberian.

Han de Vries CD cover I was also looking for some famous concertos from an international soloist. I made some enquiries, and Han de Vries responded. In no time at all I was staying in his elegant house near the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, listening with him to various recordings, and making up a set of concertos that we liked and that fitted well together. There's the Bach oboe and violin, the Mozart, the Kalliwoda Concertino (which Han had rescued from oblivion), a Telemann on Baroque oboe, and Anachronie II by Louis Andreissen. This is a completely weird concerto that contains bits of Vivaldi, Stravinsky, Michel Legrand, a Radio tuned to a speech channel, and an oboe cadenza that seems to suffer a nervous breakdown. As anyone who has met Han can testify, he really is an extremely nice chap. Irrelevant, you might say, but not so. His light, fluid oboe style seems imbued with a humour and good nature, and when Han plays them you find yourself liking pieces you thought you didn't. And having listened to all these performances a lot, I find myself sometimes about to play a phrase and thinking "now how would Han do this one?".

For the fifth, the 'unusual' CD, I listened to tapes of old players - and I mean old, by nearly a century. They included Georges Gillet, and I had high hopes of the playing of someone who could devise such fiendish studies. But I was disappointed. I have to be diplomatic here, and remember that recording conditions and attitudes were in their infancy, that players only recorded relatively popular pieces, and that there were no re-takes - but when Georges Gillet, his colleagues and pupils got to the end of a piece without too many mishaps, you felt relieved that they had managed it, rather than elevated by the musical result.
[Note: In 2005 I released a double CD of just such pieces! Geoffrey Burgess has researched the 'historic oboe' recording scene extensively. He came up with such a splendid and varied set of recordings, together with an illuminating commentary, that I can now see the value of them.]

Goossens CD cover But listening to early recordings of Léon Goossens was a different matter. That special phrasing he had - fluid and flexible without ever losing the line - was part of his playing right from the beginning, and I chose a set of concertos and pieces from the 78 era that was not available elsewhere, for example Pierné's Aubade. The special affinity he had with Irish music is evident in Bax's lovely Quintet (he spent time in Ireland). And a surprise, for me at least, was the way he played popular music. When I saw that there was a recording of the Londonderry Air, I nearly didn't bother to listen to it, having been put off by the various treatments meted out to it by certain musicians. But I did listen, and he plays with such unaffected simplicity together with a total commitment and lack of condescension, that the music blossoms.

I decided early on that the Internet would be an important part of my operations, both to advertise and sell the CDs and also to publish information around them that wouldn't fit on the CD booklet. So for example, the section in this site about Schumann has an article on why we chose the pieces, and how to obtain the arrangements. The section on Paul Goodey's CD has an article by him on his computer compositional techniques, and the one on Han de Vries has him talking about playing styles, reeds, vibrato and the pieces he is playing. Goossens' entry has a memoir of him by his daughter Jennie. Then there are many sound clips too. When I was growing up you could take an LP you were thinking of buying into a little booth and try it out - I wanted to give that kind of background to each CD.

So there we are, the initial release of Oboe Classics. I enjoyed putting it together. Like any project there have been ups and downs, but overall it is such a pleasure working not only with other oboists, but with engineers, producers, designers and collectors. But the greatest pleasures lie in furthering the cause of the oboe and the community of oboists; and in the music, exploring and celebrating the rich world of sound and feeling that the oboe opens up for us all.

© 2003, 2009 Jeremy Polmear on www.oboeclassics.com
tel: +44 (0)20 7263 4027   email: mail@oboeclassics.com

Jeremy Polmear was a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. After a science degree at Cambridge University he spent some time with IBM UK before turning to music as a career. He formed a Duo with the pianist Diana Ambache in 1977 for a British Council tour of India, and they have since performed in thirty three countries on five continents. London appearances have included the Wigmore Hall and Purcell Room, and they have made four recordings. They also run sessions for businesses, using the Arts as a management training tool.

As a freelance oboist, Jeremy has performed with a number of London's chamber and ballet orchestras, including the City of London Sinfonia, the London Mozart Players, Lontano, English National Ballet and The Ambache. He has also made several BBC broadcasts of chamber music.

He is the designer of four web sites - Women of Note, the Ambache Charitable Trust, Week Walks and this one.
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