Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas.  © 2019 Cedille Records

CD Spotlight

Something of Rare Beauty

Twentieth century oboe sonatas by
York Bowen, Petr Eben, Henri Dutilleux, Eugène Bozza,
Francis Poulenc and Camille Saint-Saëns,

'What a fantastic and inspiring team
Alex Klein and Phillip Bush make.'


As an oboist myself, as soon as I heard that Alex Klein - one of my favourite oboists of all time - was putting this disc together, I was eagerly awaiting it. This was also fuelled by the fact that I have worked on all the pieces on the disc, with the exception of the Petr Eben Sonata.

York Bowen's Sonata for Oboe and Piano is a personal favourite, but recordings are scant. This was written at the time when Leon Goossens was the pre-eminent oboist in England, and very much with that style in mind. In the past, when most American oboists have played this repertoire, it has never quite worked for me, as the sound was often too dark and sometimes heavy. Here, however, Alex Klein has captured that rather rhapsodic and pastoral English flavour, and produced something of rare beauty. He is very well supported by the sympathetic playing of Phillip Bush, who performs with a lot of energy and flair, and can provide rapid changes of expression in very short order.

Listen — York Bowen: Allegretto grazioso (Sonata for oboe and pianoforte)
(track 1, 5:34-6:19) © 2019 Cedille Records :

The second movement is a soulful meditation, and the two artists' pace and direction are beautiful and sensitive, with the right amount of rubato.

The last movement, a playful romp that dispels any sadness left over from the previous movement, is not easy to bring off, but this performance certainly does the work justice.

I had not heard the next work, by Czech composer Petr Eben (1929-2007), before, which was surprising, since I have learned from two Czech teachers. The opening 'Militaire' is resolute, but has a lovely lyrical middle section and a nice contrapuntal-like section before the return of the resolute opening.

'Pastorale' evokes a country scene, perhaps on a late summer's afternoon. This movement is tinged with wistfulness and it is obvious that Alex Klein is very fond of this work.

Listen — Petr Eben: Pastorale (Oboe Sonata, Op 1)
(track 5, 3:10-4:06) © 2019 Cedille Records :

The last movement, a lovely little 'ballabile', rounds off this lovely sonata playfully. Klein's oboe sound is full, but never too strong, and full of character. This is a delightful work.

The Sonata by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), one of my very favourite works, is really difficult to bring off well, such are the demands placed on the oboist. The piano part is also not for the faint hearted.

The first movement is taken perhaps slightly faster than I would play it, but it is certainly much easier to control at this speed, yet loses nothing from this. It is almost otherworldly, and one must rain in the temptation to make it too expressive. The composer writes in everything he wants the performer to do.

The Scherzo requires very deft finger movement and tonguing. This is a very exciting performance with both artists finely honed, and with the necessary rapid reaction times. A delightful lyrical section is beautifully played. The movement comes almost to a standstill and ends on a quiet note, the energy dissipated.

At first one wonders why the last movement, quite different to the other two, is there, but something is needed following the previous movement's quiet ending. This is my favourite movement. It goes through quite a few changes in mood over its course, and it's certainly a challenge to play. I don't think I would dare to perform it.

Listen — Henri Dutilleux: Assez allant (Sonata for Oboe and Piano)
(track 9, 2:55-3:46) © 2019 Cedille Records :

The Eugène Bozza Sonata is very interesting. The first movement is calm and like a leisurely walk down a country road. One really has to move with the harmonic flow, and fortunately this is not hard to follow. I love the Klein/Bush teamwork in this movement, and the freedom they bring to it.

The 'vif' movement that follows is full of playfulness, and is quite childlike. Klein and Bush know exactly what is needed to make this movement sparkle.

The third movement meanders again in a rather unique and limpid way, so prevalent in many of Bozza's pastoral movements for solo wind instruments. Klein points out in the CD notes that much is owed to Messiaen, and one can easily see what he means.

The last movement is one of the most problematic works I have ever attempted, and I cannot say that I did it justice, but Alex Klein and Phillip Bush certainly do. In addition to the technical difficulties, when I tried to play this, I could not work out where it was going or what was happening. But there are no such ambiguities in this performance.

Listen — Eugène Bozza: Animé (Sonata for Oboe and Piano)
(track 13, 1:25-2:00) © 2019 Cedille Records :

Next comes a beautiful rendition of perhaps the most beloved of twentieth century oboe sonatas - the Poulenc. This performance is filled with grace and eloquence, as well as fire when required, and the last movement, 'Deploration', is devastating in its delivery. The last line or so of the oboe part is marked to be played without expression. I believe this was Poulenc's last work.

Listen — Francis Poulenc: Déploration (Sonata for Oboe and Piano)
(track 16, 3:28-4:28) © 2019 Cedille Records :

Like the Poulenc, the Saint-Saëns Oboe Sonata was intended to be part of a complete cycle of sonatas for orchestral instruments, but both composers died before their respective projects could be completed.

The Saint-Saëns is also in three movements, the first being a tender and intimate little piece reminding me of a conversation - questioning and answering. It is important to get the right pace and not to hurry this work. Klein does this beautifully, providing just the right amount of rubato, and rising over the piano in the impassioned middle section.

The second movement is like two shepherds piping each other from a distance, one closer to the listener than the other. This artist though treats it a little differently from how I would. What he does is very clever. He alters the sound quality of the two players to create the different distances away from the listener. Then comes a lovely little gentle and rocking section before the original idea is reintroduced to round off the work.

Listen — Saint-Saëns: ad libitum (Sonata for Oboe and Piano)
(track 18, 3:30-4:18) © 2019 Cedille Records :

The last movement is a real romp. The artists play it very fast, but losing none of the clarity, and with not a note out of place. The final couple of lines will leave you breathless.

Listen — Saint-Saëns: Molto allegro (Sonata for Oboe and Piano)
(track 19, 1:28-2:08) © 2019 Cedille Records :

This is a great disc - any wind player, and particularly oboists, must buy this. What a fantastic and inspiring team Alex Klein and Phillip Bush make.

Copyright © 15 October 2019 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia




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