Thursday, 29 March 2018

Rutland Boughton ‘For Joyance’: The Complete Chamber Music for Oboe

The liner notes explain the background to this splendid new CD. The British composer Rutland Boughton had eight children – from several partners - some of whom became ‘established musicians.’  For the record Ruby (1904-52) and Estelle (1907-72) were singers, Jennifer (1928-2001) was also a singer, whilst Brian (b.1927) was a trumpeter.
The main protagonist for this present CD is ‘Joy’ Boughton who was born in 1913 to the composer’s second partner, Christina Walshe. She was to become a well-respected and highly-accomplished oboist of her generation. Joy studied with Leon Goossens at the Royal College of Music, before embarking on her career. Ill health prevented her from taking up a Professorship at the college.  After her early death in 1963, the Joy Boughton Memorial Prize Fund was established. This was supported by big names of the day, including Benjamin Britten, Janet Craxton and Evelyn Rothwell (Lady Barbirolli). As a matter of interest, Britten composed his remarkable Six Metamorphosis after Ovid, Op. 49 in 1951 for Joy Boughton: she played in Britten’s orchestra at Aldeburgh.
On the present CD, all the chamber works are dedicated to Boughton’s daughter except for the short Portrait for flute, oboe and piano, which was possibly written for Leon Goossens.
In addition to the works recorded here, there are two Oboe Concertos. The first, composed in 1936, was dedicated to Joy, with the second being written for Leon Goossens in 1943. The first of these concertos has been issued on Hyperion Helios CDH55019 (1999) with Sarah Francis as soloist. Listeners await a recording of the second concerto.

The earliest work on this CD is the ‘Portrait’ for flute, oboe and piano. The liner notes explain that little is known about this piece. It may well have been written for Leon Goossens: he had the score in his possession in 1961. The Portrait was completed in February 1925, at a time when Boughton was concentrating on his massive operatic projects. There is no record of its premiere. It is a wonderful piece that is full of sunshine and optimism. There are touches of impressionism here and there. The dialogues between the flute and the oboe are delightful. It is a work that ought to be in the repertoire of all wind ensembles that include this grouping of instruments.

I moved onto the next piece, in chronological order - the Oboe Quartet No.1, completed during April 1932. Once again, there is no record of its first performance, however, Joy did include it in several recitals and made a private recording. There are three movements: the opening ‘allegro vivace’ is in sonata form, this is followed by a vivacious ‘scherzo’ and the work concludes with a satisfying set of variations on an unidentified folk-theme. The Quartet has been described by the composer, as ‘small, sweet and Spring-like, with some of Spring’s sadness through it…’
I fell for this work when it was issued by Hyperion (CDA66936,1997) played by Sarah Francis and the Rasumovsky Quartet. I still love it now in this equally well-wrought version.

The Two Pieces for oboe and piano, (1937) ‘Somerset Pastorale’ and ‘The Passing of the Faerie’, were originally two discrete pieces. The first is based on a genuine folk-song, ‘Ye little birds that sing.’ This is a charming pastoral ramble, in the nicest sort of way. The second is a ‘joke’ or ‘parody’, with Boughton writing a ‘take’ on the onetime famous ‘Faery Song’ from his Celtic-inspired opera The Immortal Hour. However, any serious intent is blown away by a bouncy folk song. The opening music is briefly recapitulated in the final bars. An ideal recital piece for oboist with piano accompaniment.

The Three Songs without Words for oboe quartet were derived from musical sketches that Boughton had made for several works that ‘did not materialise’. The opening piece ‘Whence’ may have come from a lost score for Isolt which originally incidental music for a play was.
The vivacious second movement, ‘Faery Flout’ was based on music once destined for a setting of a poem by Mary Webb. The final piece, ‘Barcarolle’ is deeper waters. This explores ‘brooding shadows’, ‘whispering willows and summertime drowsiness.’

‘Greensleeves’ is a well-loved melody, probably best-known in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia. The original folk tune is often believed to have been devised by Henry VIII, although some suggest a later date, and being imported from Italy. Boughton’s take, written during the Second World War, is much simpler than RVWs with no contrasting tune (Lovely Joan). On the other hand, he does reach a level of retrospection and intimacy that is denied to that better-known version.

The ‘latest’ work on this CD is the Oboe Quartet No.2 which was completed during the spring of 1945. It is unbelievable that the work had to wait until 2014 to receive ‘its first known performance.’ Even a superficial hearing of this work reveals a masterpiece. I guess that the underlying issue with this work was that it did not reflect modernism of either Britten or that of the emerging serialists, such as Lutyens and Searle.
The ‘dramatic’ opening ‘allegro’ is the most complex section of this four-movement quartet. There are certainly several folk songs hinted at, with several less-obviously derived tunes: it is just a continuous outpouring of melody.  The ‘andante languendo’ is based on the final number of the Three Songs without Words. It is certainly the heart of what is typically an exhilarating quartet. I enjoyed the ‘scherzo, which has an almost jazzy feel to it with folk inspired waltz tunes. It is lively, happy and joyful music, with only a little bit of sad regret in the ‘trio’ section. The finale is an exuberant ‘hornpipe’ which fairly romps along. It is certainly music to bring even the most reserved of chamber music habitués to their feet!

As always with the Oboe Classics label the booklet is a masterclass – with one exception. Detailed notes for each work are preceded by a short overview setting the music in its entirety in context. They are written by Ian R Boughton, the composer’s grandson.  There is long biography of the composer and notes about the performers. Finally. Mark Baigent has provided details about the instruments used in this recording, which reflect the contemporary (to Boughton) used. The exception to these notes are the fonts – grey printed on grey, white on black etc. It may be artistically pleasing, but it does not help older eyes gain the benefit of the information so helpfully provided.

I enjoyed every bar of this beautifully recorded and played exploration of Rutland Boughton’s contribution to chamber music featuring the oboe. Let us hope this CD kick starts further investigation into the composer’s considerable catalogue of music. Certainly every piece on this disc ought to be in oboists’ repertoire. 

Track Listing:
Rutland BOUGHTON (1878-1960)
Oboe Quartet No.2 ‘For my daughter, Joy’ (1945)
Two Pieces for oboe and piano ‘For Joyance’ (1937)
Three Songs without Words for oboe quartet, ‘To Joyance, with love’ (1937)
Portrait for flute, oboe and piano (1925)
Greensleeves for oboe quartet, ‘For Joy’ (c.1939-45)
Oboe Quartet No.1, ‘For my daughter Joy’ (1932)
Mark Baigent (oboe), Eva Cabellero (flute), Michael Jones (piano), Sophie Barber (violin), Chian Lim (viola), Stephen Orton (cello)
Rec. Woodside Hall, Hitchin, 10-11 August 2017 

With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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