Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Great Goossens: works for oboe and orchestra played by Leon Goossens

The British oboist Leon Goossens was born into a musical family in 1897. His father Eugene was a violinist and conductor. Leon’s siblings were also to achieve considerable fame: Eugene Aynsley was a renowned composer and conductor, Marie Henriette and Sidonie were both harpists.
After early lessons with Charles Reynolds, Leon made some youthful appearances in the concert hall. Between 1911 and 1914 he studied at the Royal College of Music, after which he held the post of Principal Oboist in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.  During the First World War, Goossens was engaged in military service, during which he was wounded. Following demobilisation, he played in the Covent Garden Orchestra. In 1932 Leon Goossens joined the newly-founded Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra as principal.   After 1939 he was a free-lance soloist playing concertos and chamber music. Goossens was Professor of Oboe at the Royal Academy of Music (1924-35) and also at the Royal College of Music (1924-39). In 1962 he sustained a head injury in a car crash, which damaged his teeth and lips. However, he overcame this injury by developing a new technique of playing. Goossens resumed performance and continued to teach and play until shortly before his death in 1988.
One result of Goossens’ pre-eminence as an instrumentalist was the eagerness of composers to write music especially for him. Important works were composed by Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The music on this CD is comprehensive and covers a considerable range of styles and musical periods.  They represents some of Leon Goossens’ favourite works.  The earliest recording was made in 1943 and the latest in 1961. All the pieces have been remastered from the original records.
The disc opens with the Concerto for oboe and strings by the Italian Domenico Cimarosa. This was ‘realised’ by the British composer Arthur Benjamin from a number of one-movement keyboard sonatas. I enjoyed this piece, with its lovely vocal melodies which are ideally suited to the oboe.

There are a number of arrangements on this CD including the Sinfonia from J.S. Bach’s Easter Oratorio arranged by the Northumberland composer William Gillies Whittaker. The liner notes point out that the playing of this piece ‘transcends any disagreements about authenticity’ potentially raised by the ‘historically informed performance’ movement.  It is truly heart-rending in its beauty.  Other miniatures include Gabriel Pierné’s ‘Aubade’, a transcription of Jean Baptiste Senaillé’s ‘Cotillon’, Herbert Hughes arrangement of the haunting Irish song ‘How deep in love am I’ and Hugh Allen’s setting of Bach’s ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ for oboe, choir and organ.

Special treats for me on this CD include Desmond MacMahon’s Oboe Concerto. Alas, only the third movement of this piece has been included. The transcription comes from a privately owned 78rpm disc. In the liner notes, Jeremy Polmear, oboist and the CD producer, states that he cannot ‘see [himself] playing it at this stage in [his] career’ which is a pity, as it sounds quite charming. Maybe he feels that there is not sufficient depth in the music. Hopefully some oboist will locate the score and make a new recording. It may ‘only’ be ‘light’ music, but it sounds quite bewitching. 
Another piece of ‘lighter’ music is Alec Templeton’s delightful ‘Scherzo Caprice’. It was composed specifically for Leon Goossens by a composer who wrote jazz and classical music in his career. Once again Polmear states that although he has played this piece many times, he no longer does as ‘… [His] recital programmes have become more serious as [his] career has gone on…’

My favourite work on this CD is Eugene Goossens’ Concerto for oboe in one movement. This is a demanding work that seems to balance a half-remembered pastoral mood with something much more edgy, suggesting a response to a largely mechanised, post-Great War society. It was originally conceived for oboe and piano and can be heard in this version on Oboe Classics CC2008.

The CD concludes with a wonderful version of Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto. This is a late work, having been composed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The story is that as the US forces approached the German town of Garmisch in 1945, Corporal John de Lancie paid Strauss a visit, and suggested that he compose an Oboe Concerto. De Lancie was at that time Principal Oboist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Initially, Strauss refused, but relented and the work was completed six months later. The mood of the music is simpler than much of Strauss’ work and nods back to Mozart, as well as having hints of Der Rosenkavalier. It is one of the masterpieces for oboe and orchestra.

The liner notes are in three parts. The first section consists of an interview between Jeremy Polmear who founded the Oboe Classics label in 2002, and Nicolas Daniel. This is a wide ranging discussion that includes Goossens’ legacy and ‘connections’ between Goossens’ career and Polmear’s.  The second part features detailed notes about each work, presented as a discussion between Polmear and Daniel. Alas, the dates of composition/arrangement and composers have typically not been included: I have provided these where possible. The final section is a conversation between Polmear and the transcribers of the original records/discs used to create this album, Malcolm MacMillan and Christopher Steward. The booklet features a number of photos of Goossens, his family, Richard Strauss and Jeremy Polmear. 

I cannot praise this CD highly enough. It is a great retrospective of one of the finest oboists of the twentieth century. The programme is well-balanced between serious and lighter pieces. The remastering of the original records has made it a pleasure to recapture Goossens’ style and masterly technique

Track Listings:
Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801), arr. Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960): Concerto in C for oboe and strings (arr.1942) Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Dr Malcolm Sargent
J S BACH (1685-1750), arr. William Gillies WHITTAKER (1876-1944): Sinfonia from the Easter Oratorio, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Dr Malcolm Sargent
Jean Baptiste SENAILLÉ (1687-1730) arr. Alfred MOFFAT (1863-1950): Cotillon
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937): Aubade
‘How deep in love am I’, Traditional, arr. Herbert HUGHES (1882-1937): Irish Song (1934)
Alec TEMPLETON (1909/10-63): Scherzo Caprice (1965)
All with Gerald Moore (piano)
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962): Concerto for oboe in one movement (1927) Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor Walter Susskind
J S BACH, arr. Hugh ALLEN (1869-1946): Jesu, joy of man's desiring (1955) Temple Church Choir, Dr George Thalben-Ball (organ)
Desmond MACMAHON (1898-1962): Oboe concerto, 3rd movement (1956) BBC Midland Light Orchestra, conductor possibly Gilbert Vinter
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949): Oboe Concerto, Philharmonia Orchestra (1945) conductor Alceo Galliera
Oboe Classics CC2031 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.

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