The Classical Reviewer

Whilst we tend to think of classical musical instruments as remaining unchanged in the modern age, during previous centuries instruments were developed in order to improve their sound, fingering or to make the playing of new music easier.

With the demands of some contemporary music, it should not really come as a surprise that oboist, Christopher Redgate, has been working with the oboe maker, Howarth of London, on the redesign of some of the key-work of the oboe. The aim has been to develop an oboe which is specifically designed for the performance of contemporary repertoire. A significant number of contemporary compositional practices challenge the current design of the key-work as, indeed, they do the performers. This is particularly the case when used in complex passages, or at difficult speeds.

The aims of Redgate’s work have been to make some of these technical problems easier through the development of key-work which is specifically adapted to the challenges and to open up the instrument to a range of new sonic and technical possibilities. The kind of compositional practices that he has been addressing include the use of microtones, the use of the altissimo range (top G and above) and the use of multiphonics.

Metier have just released Volume One of a series of recordings of New Music for Oboe. This new disc features the new Howarth-Redgate oboe played by Christopher Redgate, with Stephen Robbings (piano) and Michael Finnissy (piano). On this disc Redgate also plays the rarely heard Lupophon, a bass oboe.

Edwin Roxburgh (b.1937) has written a new work specifically for Christopher Regdate to demonstrate the abilities of the new instrument. Roxburgh’s new work, The Well-Tempered Oboe, certainly gives an amazing demonstration of what the new oboe can achieve. Each movement is based on a Bach title and is written to give the pianist an equally virtuosic role.

Opening in the extreme high register, the music is astringent at times but there are amazing textures and colours. The first movement, Aeolian Prelude , sets out in a manner that looks as though it intends to shock yet develops with some intriguing and attractive sounds as the oboe and piano weave around each other. Triadic Arioso has strange dissonant microtonal harmonies against a piano motif, leading to a somewhat plaintive melody before alternating with the dissonant microtones. Towards the end there are unusual timbres quietly set against the piano.

The third movement, Chromatic Fantasia , has almost bell like notes on the piano with the oboe playing complementary phrases. This meditative opening section, with the oboe creating sounds, at times melodic, around piano chords still requires exceptional virtuosity from both performers. The juxtaposition of astringency against melody is quiet affecting. There is later a more rapid section before the return of the meditative theme. There is a virtuoso ‘Multiphonic Toccata’ which concludes this work with some phenomenal playing. There is also tremendous playing from Stephen Robbings with the oboe dancing over rapid piano phrases. Occasionally, a mellower sound from the oboe breaks through but the listener is always kept their toes. There is a cadenza for the solo oboe that demonstrates Redgate’s terrific skill, if such a demonstration is still needed after such a performance. There are amazing sounds in this challenging, but rewarding work.

Michael Finnissy (b.1946) composed his Âwâz-e Niyâz for oboe/lupophon and piano in 2012. Âwâz-e Niyâz means ‘Songs from Mysterious Necessity (or Prayerfulness) and was inspired by the Vocal Radif of Traditional Iranian Music which brings together material from improvised song performances.

The Lupophon is a recently developed bass oboe with a range that goes down to a low F at the bottom of the bass clef. This instrument is still comparatively rare but has created an interest amongst composers who are interested in writing for the instrument.

Written in one continuous movement Âwâz-e Niyâz opens with a definite Persian or eastern influence on the lupophon against a fragmented piano counterpoint. There are some lovely deep sonorities in this evocative music. There is an extended passage for piano on the fragmented counterpoint phrases. The Howarth-Redgate oboe enters echoing the piano theme, repetitive overall, yet varied by the sonorities of the oboe.

Based on improvised song performances, this music has the feel of such a composition. A new theme enters, more dramatically, with chords on the piano against cries from the lupophon and oboe using the upper and lower registers of each instrument to great effect, becoming almost ghostly with strange echoes between instruments.

Menacing sounds re-appear as the music gets louder until eventually the Persian influenced sounds appear again as the music slowly winds its way forward. The music climbs in pitch on the oboe showing the amazing versatility of this new instrument. The exotic Persian sounds return again with the lupophone and oboe, as the music continues to weaves its way forward. Dissonances appear before the lupophon enters with the piano meandering around in lovely phrases following the lupophon downwards.

After some lovely short, quiet, slow phrases from the lupophon, the piano takes the lead in a delicate solo passage where the pianist provides an extended melody, against which the lupophon and oboe add occasional mournful phrases. The control in this passage is quite mesmerising continuing as it does over a long span until, with trills on the oboe, a lighter mood is introduced, though still quiet and slow. Again the mournful sound of the oboe’s upper reaches re-appears, with great concentration and sensitivity from both instrumentalists.

Eventually the music brightens with a plaintive but lively melody for the oboe over notes picked out on the piano in a kind of spare counterpoint. There is an outburst on both instruments as the lupophon gives loud astringent sounds over low, loud chords on the piano. This stormy music, with fierce runs up the lower keyboard and astringent cries and outbursts from the lupophon and oboe, continues to the end, with the instruments making a variety of cries in an amazing section, full of drama. The end comes suddenly with a final outburst.

The music on this disc is challenging with the striking microtones of the Well-Tempered Oboe and the repetitions of Awaz-e Niyaz. However, concentrated listening brings immense rewards with intriguing and unusual sounds many of which are very beautiful. Christopher Redgate’s playing is simply spectacular.

The recording is excellent and there are informative notes on the instruments and the musicians by Christopher Redgate, as well as individual notes on the music by Edwin Roxburgh and Michael Finnissy.

—Bruce Reader