“A Tribute to Janet” = Oboe Quartets by Mozart, Britten, Knussen, Francaix – Britten Oboe Quartet – Harmonia Mundi

A Tribute to Janet = Oboe Quartets by Mozart, Birtten, Knussen, Françaix— Britten Oboe Quartet (Nicholas Daniel, Jacqueline Shave, Clare Finnimore, Caroline Dearnley) — Harmonia Mundi HMM 907672, 61:09 ****:

This recording combines various “oboe quartets” by a diverse group of composers, beginning with W.A. Mozart, then moving in time to Jean Françaix, Benjamin Britten (for whom this ensemble is named), and Oliver Knussen. The oboe quartet of course is a string quartet minus one of the violins, not four oboes. Nicholas Daniel is the oboe player, and in the work by Françaix and a single movement by Mozart, he moves to the English horn.

The two pieces I liked best were the Mozart Quartet (K. 370) and the Quatour pour cor anglias, violon, alto et violoncelle by Françaix written in 1970. The Mozart piece starts the recording (and is augmented by a single movement piece by Mozart, an Adagio for English horn, K.580a. It reveals a highly polished ensemble, which seems continually well-balanced, articulate, and enrobed in a beautiful acoustic. Yet, a recital of music from different periods can be a challenge for the listener. The Britten and Knussen depart from the comfort of Mozart’s tonality. The Françaix could easily be described as tonal, but is both quirky and playful. Jean Françaix was a new composer for me. The Britten Oboe Quartet was extremely consistent throughout the program, responding beautifully to the changes in musical styles.

The Britten Phantasy, op. 2 from 1932 has its playful moments too. There’s ample dialog between the oboe and the strings (both alone and in consort). The piece shifts moods easily, and I can’t help but think of the piece as a type of program music, but I’m left wondering what story it is either telling or accompanying. To read in the notes a comparison made to Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale is not far-off; that piece includes narration that does tell a tale. Britten’s piece is inventive, fanciful, and the various moods it portrays flow so easily between one another. It’s a credit to the composer, but also to the ensemble for making it work.

Parts of the oboe part in the Knussen Cantata, op. 15, remind me of the oboe part in George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children. Knussen’s piece visits some contemporary tonality, but never gets quite as weird as Crumb’s piece. Different perhaps in orchestration, this piece seems to pit the oboe as a solo instrument against the strings. Knussen employs texture as an orchestral element in writing for the strings. Again, the music for me seems to be telling a story. It would make, I believe, appropriate fodder for a movie soundtrack.

“A Tribute to Janet” refers to the oboist Nicholas Daniel’s mentor and teacher. While the juxtaposition of different musical styles may not resonate equally with the listener from one piece to the next, I was impressed by the sensitive musicianship by this ensemble. The sound quality matched high expectations for Harmonia Mundi. As for the Mozart, the Rondo, K. 370 is an absolute delight.

— Sebastian Herrera

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