Thursday, 16 April 2009

Malcolm Arnold: Fantasy for Oboe Op.90

Over the years Malcolm Arnold wrote a number of Fantasies for solo instruments: some 12 such examples being noted in Stewart Craggs Bio-bibliography of the composer. The first group were composed in 1965 and include one for Bassoon, Clarinet, Flute, Horn and Oboe. I recently found a copy of the sheet music for the Fantasy for Oboe Op.90 in Travis and Emery’s second-hand music shop in London. This particular work had caught my ear when I first heard it on the fine three volume Nash ensemble recording of Arnold’s chamber music on Hyperion.
The Fantasy for Oboe, along with the other ’65 group was commissioned by the city of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for the International Wind Competition in May 1966. In fact, the first performance was in Birmingham Town Hall and the soloist was Maurice Bourgue.
What is important to realise about each of these Fantasies is that they are viable, genuine and even important miniatures in there own right. Although they were test pieces, they are also true works of art.

The Fantasy for Oboe is a case in point. Even a superficial hearing of this work will surely reveal the fingerprints of Malcolm Arnold. The very first phrase of this piece, an 'Allegretto' in 2/4 time sets the scene for the remainder of the work. The 'allegretto' is followed by a 'vivace' initially in semiquavers. This leads to a variation between the wide interval quavers and a scalar passage in semi-quavers. Soon the initial theme reappears. This opening material is used to create a slightly more thoughtful 'andante', which gradually leads to an accelerando passage before a difficult 'presto' at letter 'H' in the score. The composer creates a 'pseudo’ two-part theme here before and ascending passage in thirds leading to a trill which is probably the heart of the work. Soon the Presto gives way to a final reprise of the 'allegretto' material. The work ends on a high Bb.
Hugo Cole notes that this Fantasy, like the others “abounds in the sort of brilliant, florid even showy passages which find no place in the [Arnold’s] Sonatinas of the earlier years.” He further notes that, for the competition, each piece had to “test the player’s facility in rapid passage work in all registers, powers of endurance, and command of every sort of articulation..."
The general impression is that this piece is a microcosm of Arnold’s musical achievement. It is well constructed, shapely, tuneful and interesting. The technical demands on the player are considerable, but do not detract from the listener’s enjoyment of this work.

The Fantasy for Oboe appears to be only available on the Nash Ensemble version on Hyperion. It was published by Faber Music in 1966.

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