Friday, 5 September 2008

Richard Stoker, Janet Craxton & ‘Polemics’

Richard Stoker is no stranger to the art of writing chamber music- either in general or for the oboe in particular. A brief perusal of his catalogue reveals Three String Quartets, Two String Trios, a Wind Quintet, and Clarinet Quartet. There are a number of works for various instruments, with or without piano.
When we consider the oboe repertoire the first thing to note is that he produced a didactic volume entitled An 'Oboe Method' -so we feel confident that he must have a facility for writing for this instrument. He has written a number of pieces for the instrument including a Chant & Danse for the Associated Board examinations, an Aubade and Three Pieces for solo performer. But perhaps must enticing of all is the Pastoral for Oboe and Strings – this must surely be a candidate for some future recording project.

Richard Stoker had met Janet Craxton when they were both on the staff at the Royal Academy. He was at that time professor of composition there. She had come to a performance of his Third String Quartet (Adlerian) on the South Bank and had been suitably impressed by what she heard. Soon she made a request to him for a work for her instrument. Now it appears that she wanted an Oboe Quartet. But Stoker was not inspired by this combination. What he had in mind was to set up a debate or a discussion between a single woodwind and a string trio. Hence the two main protagonists were to become oboe and the trio. The dedicatee did not know about this particular change to the planned quartet until the work was finished – but Stoker relates that she was ‘OK’ about it.

The relationship between performer and composer was based on vigorous debate. They discussed everything – from music through the state of the world and just about life in general. Craxton was some nine years older than Stoker and no doubt brought her considerable wisdom and wit into the conversations. He regarded these dialogues as a kind of ‘platonic’ debate – hence the title ‘Polemics.’ A brief look at the dictionary defines ‘polemics’ as follows:- A controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine.

A person engaged in or inclined to controversy, argument, or refutation.
Now listening to music it is difficult to see the more hard edged words used in the above definitions. For example there is little in the way of ‘attack’ and refuting.’ This suggests a ‘polemic’ infused by respect and admiration rather than by mere point scoring.
The composer writes that he considered the oboe as Janet Craxton and the violin, and other strings as himself.
Polemics is written in three slightly unbalanced movements. Although it could be argued that the work falls into five sections with the heart of the matter central to the argument.
The first movement is entitled Sonata – although it seems to be perhaps in a ‘Scarlattian’ sense as opposed to that of Beethoven. It runs for a mere two and half minutes. The oboe starts off the proceedings with a short solo gesture before the stings join in –the lady definitely has the first word! The oboe retains its prominence throughout this movement –but is set against bold and wide-ranging statements from the other strings. The debate seems to be somewhat abrupt and there are certainly a number of throwaway lines here!
The second movement is definitely the heart of the work. It is a strangle construction really, being a deep ‘sostenuto’ sandwiched between two skittish ‘scherzando passages. In some ways it is a sonata within a sonata! Yet it is this movement that give this whole work its touch of genius.
Stoker has written that in the ‘scherzando’ sections he has written music in a style that he knew Craxton enjoyed playing. He used the Mozart Oboe Quartet as a starting point rather than a model. This was a classical work that was a critical part of Janet Craxton’s repertoire.
But it is in the central section – the sostenuto – where Stoker excels himself. There is a profundity to this music that stays in the mind long after the final notes of the piece have been heard. And there is a strangely ‘English’ quality to this music – especially the string parts. This is not perhaps too surprising until one recalls Stoker’s predilection towards the ‘Francophile’ works of Lennox Berkeley.
The last movement is in fact a fugue. Here all the four instruments come into the argument. It is harder to spot anyone in the ascendancy –although the soloist is certainly never put in their place.
It is difficult to know if this work is based on a tone-row of any kind. Much of the writing has an atonal feel to it that suggests there may be some constructional principal underlying the melodic and harmonic development of this piece. But typically Stoker has used tone rows as a means to an end rather than the end itself. It does not really matter whether we are listening to inversions or retrogrades of the original note sequence – it is whether the music moves the soul. In this case it most certainly does.
The only recording we have of this work is unfortunately in ‘mono’ sound. It was made two days before Christmas Day in 1971 at the BBC Broadcasting House. Yet it is a classic in its own right. This is available on Oboe Classics CC2011 and is coupled with works by Routh, Maconchy, LeFanu, Berkeley and Lutyens. The playing of both the soloist and the London Oboe Quartet seems to my ear faultless – the cut and thrust of the ‘polemic’ or ‘dialogue’ is vital and the string tone leaves nothing to be desired.
Because of the close association of the composer and the player it is doubtful that any subsequent recordings can quite catch the magic and the personality of both the ‘key players.’ But that must never be a reason not to record a great work time and again. I sincerely hope that some oboist will take up this work and produce a modern, stereo recording. And perhaps they could include some of the other works that Stoker wrote for this great instrument.

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this was originally posted in 2006

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