Friday, 14 March 2008

Elizabeth Maconchy: Three Bagatelles for Oboe & Harpsichord.

I recently wrote that I felt Maconchy’s Three Bagatelles for Oboe & Harpsichord was a far removed from the ethos of her teacher Ralph Vaughan Williams as it is possible to imagine. I conceded that, although I was a great enthusiast of Maconchy’s music, I could not quite get to grips with these three miniatures. Yet a friend has challenged me to listen to them again and to make a few notes about them.

The work was composed in 1972 for a recital given by Lady Barbirolli (Evelyn Rothwell) and her duo partner Valda Aveling in the Purcell Rooms. Maconchy had already shown an interest in baroque instrumentation – she had composed a number of pieces for solo harpsichord in 1965 including Notebook and a Sonatina. She was to go on to write Touchstone for oboe and chamber orchestra and Trittico for two oboes, bassoon and harpsichord.
The opening allegro of the present work has a brisk rhythmic drive which emphasises the characteristics of both instruments. The 'feel' to the music is largely neo-classical – I believe that it actually nods to Stravinsky more than to Bartok – who was a great influence on Maconchy. It has been noted that the chord clusters in this movement are reminiscent of a passage from The Rite of Spring!
The 'poco lento' is perhaps the most idiomatic part of this work. It is not stilted or static but has the freedom of a fantasia. There is a spaciousness about this music that defies the three and half minute time span. The spread chords on the harpsichord are particularly appropriate.
The last movement is signed as a ‘vivo’ –perhaps it would be better to say that parts of it resemble a 'perpetuum mobile.' This is great writing for the players and develops through a variety of time signatures. There are a few moments of relaxation before the work closes with considerable élan.

These three miniatures are beautifully constructed – there is no doubt about that. They are an important addition to the repertoire for oboe and harpsichord -if for no other reason than few ‘modern’ composers choose to write for this combination. Yet more than this, these Bagatelles grow on you -there is a haunting quality about them that makes them compulsive. I am coming round to liking them…

Visit the link below and search around for a CD called "From Leipzig to London” for full details of this work and others on this fine disc.

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