Gordon Jacob: Concerto #1 for Oboe and Strings, 2nd movement

Header for Jacob piece

I like Jacob’s writing for the oboe very much and the second movement of this concerto is an absolute knockout. There are some tricky little corners though, especially in the opening Andante con moto section. Between M and the Poco più mosso which begins at O*, the oboist is doing a lot of fiddling about up in the third octave around C#-D#-E. It doesn’t go any higher than E, but nevertheless, because the short fingerings for the high notes don’t work AT ALL on my oboe, I’ve had to consider carefully what fingerings to use where. The difficulty lies in finding a compromise between something that’s more or less in tune and something that’s not going to leave me with my fingers tied in knots.

Anyway, let’s go from the beginning and have a look at some of these corners. The metronome marking for the 6/8 Andante con moto section is a steady quaver = circa 80, and while this may feel a little on the slow side, one should bear in mind that the pace picks up gradually, from the poco agitato after N into the Poco più mosso at O. The upshot of this is that if you start off speedily, you’re going to have to get speedier and that may well make for some unpleasantly sweaty moments later on. Besides, taken too quickly the piece loses some of its lovely lilting quality.

The first ‘nasty’ comes four bars before M, with a left-hand Eb to Db leap:

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The number of times I’ve played a Db in the wrong octave here just isn’t funny. Perhaps it’s just me, but I really do have to concentrate or a bottom Db comes blunderbussing out and then I get all flustered and lose my place. The next nasty comes in the form of a fiddly C#-D# twiddle six bars after M:

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Get off the C# marked in yellow quickly, otherwise everyone else will get to the next bar before you do! This one’s worth practising slowly with a metronome and gradually working up to speed. That should help with smoothing the phrase too, because ideally your audience shouldn’t be aware of the amount of messy fumbling you have to do here and even after all the work I’ve done on this piece, I’m still finding that I’ve got a bad case of slippy-sloppy fingers in this bar.

A few bars later, there are a few top D-E combinations which took a bit of working out. Usually I use this fingering for my top E:

Top E notation Top E preferred fingering

It’s a good sound and it’s pretty well in tune. My top D, however, needs tethering somewhat because otherwise it can veer off into being horribly sharp, so I use this fingering:

Top Eb preferred fingering

Sometimes I don’t need the right-hand middle finger, but this will depend on the reed. The more resistant the reed, the less likely it is that I’ll need that middle finger. But in any case, the finger combinations here make it difficult to move smoothly from D to E and back again, so when the music dictates a rapid D-E switch, I have to compromise with an alternative fingering for the top E. I don’t like this fingering as much because it can often be too much on the sunny side and requires a fair bit of lipping down:

Top E alternative fingering

Basically, where I’ve got a bit of time in the music, I use the long fingerings for D and E and do the best I can to slide about between the two, as here:

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There’s time as you approach that top E to prepare yourself for the slide from one long fingering to another.

But where Jacob writes D-E shifts in semi-quavers, as in the bar below, I have to settle for the alternative E-fingering and do what I can with embouchure to adjust the tuning. This particular bar is pretty nasty, because of all the leaping about:

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At least there’s a crescendo to help you slur up to that top E, but this bar needs to be practised very slowly with a tuner. And playing long notes around G-E-D-G won’t hurt either.

Okay, onto the nastiest nasty bar. Here we are:

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Yuck. The run-up to the C# in the first half of the bar is okay – it shouldn’t take too long to sort that out – but the only way I can play the next bit is if I use the following fingerings.

A – the fingering I like for top E:

Top E preferred fingering

B – the alternative fingering for D# which tends to be sharp:

Top Eb alternative fingering

C – the fingering I usually use for D# which is basically that for D (see below) plus the G# key. On my oboe, this one’s best for tuning.

Top Eb preferred fingering

Slowly slowly with this one. Softlysoftlycatchymonkey. As I suggested for the middle octave C#-D# twiddle earlier, play slowly with a tuner and a metronome and work up to speed. The thing is, see, that it’s got to sound nice, which is difficult when you’re squeaking around up there. But again, at least you’ve got a crescendo to help you.

Next ‘orrible bit: you must decide in the following bar whether you’re going to fiddle around with a right-hand Ab, or whether you’re going to risk sliding it:

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I still haven’t really worked this one out, to be honest. The slide method is more reliable but I can’t eliminate the bump in the sound as my little finger moves from the Ab to the left-hand Eb, and I sort of feel that I ought to use my right-hand Ab more often. I’ll persevere with the right-hand Ab and report back later on how I get on.

There are fewer nasties in the Poco più mosso section, but still a few bits and bobs worth mentioning. First of all, a couple of top Cs – one piano entry going into a hairpin, and another diminuendo top C near the end of the movement, when you’re tired anyway and trying to hang onto what’s left of your embouchure – the danger in both cases being that you’ll pinch it sharp.

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My solution (as always!) is to put more fingers down. For both these notes, I have my thumb on the thumb-plate and all three right-hand fingers down plus the C# key. It really does help. I know my teacher thinks this is cheating, but I’m all in favour of anything I can do to help me steady a top C when my lip has almost gone.

Just three more passages to mention now. The following bar looks pretty awful, but really it’s just a written out accelerando on a scale of Ab major:

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Six semiquavers, two groups of triplets and a final flourish up to the Eb. It’s not too bad, and I suppose the best way to tackle this would be to work on an Ab major scale in thirds, fourths, and sixths if you can bear it. Then practise the whole bar under-speed to begin with, but absolutely rhythmically. If you can play it correctly at a slower pace, then all you have to do is work at speeding it up.

The next tricky bit is actually my favourite part to play, so much so that I’ve knocked myself out on PicMonkey and added a lipstick kiss and a love-heart:

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It’s a really lovely little bubbling accompaniment to the quavers in the piano/string part. The sunglasses – another PicMonkey special – indicate that the drop from Ab to G, a drop of just over an octave, is the bit you must work on, because if you land on an Ab instead of a G, it’ll throw you and you need to know where you are all the time with these triplets. Lots and lots of careful practice needed here, and it helps to shape the phrase if you accentuate the hairpins.

Last one! There’s a Molto tranquillo at R with lots of burbling around at the bottom of the oboe’s range:

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I find that getting the G to sound after having focused on getting those low notes out is a real bugger. Once again, I suppose the answer is to play long notes with a tuner (C to G and back again) to get used to the necessary embouchure adjustment, and of course, using a tuner will help with intonation. Here is one of the very few places where my G tends to come out sharp, instead of cow-pat flat like it usually is.

I have a lovely recording with Ruth Bolister doing the honours which I can definitely recommend. She makes pretty short work of the reasonably gruesome cadenza in the first movement too; the other movements are alright in themselves, but they don’t shine like this wonderful second movement. The most magical moment comes at P, when the oboe has to play five bars of Eb crotchet to C quaver, swelling from pp to mf and back down to pp again: it’s so simple, and so beautiful. (Ooo, make those conservatoire Cs to help keep it smooth.)

Do give this movement a whirl. It’s worth the effort.

*In my Joseph Williams edition, the numbers run on through all three movements, so, for example, the second movement opens mid-way through letter L.

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