A look at some of the repertoire for cor anglais

Alan Richardson: Three Pieces, Opus 22 (Cor Anglais and Piano)

Jean Françaix: Quator (Cor Anglais, Violin, Viola, ‘Cello)

The cor gets all the lovely soupy tunes when it comes to orchestral parts, including the creamy solo in Dvořák’s New World Symphony:

This tune is of course known to many as the Hovis tune, thanks to a 1973 advert which features the same solo played at something like double speed by a brass band:

(If ever offered the chance, I would never play this. Every bugger knows it and if you screw up, you have nowhere to hide.)

I must admit, however, to being a bit disappointed in the solo repertoire for cor. There’s the wonderful Pēteris Vasks concerto, but it’s priced at £65 and although there is a cheaper version with piano reduction, it’s difficult to obtain. So I’m always on the look-out for other cor works, and thought I’d mention here two pieces that I’ve come across in my various plundering expeditions.

First, there’s Alan Richardson (1904-1978). Richardson was a Scottish pianist and composer who married oboist Janet Craxton in 1961 and composed several pieces for her. I’ve come across some of Richardson’s compositions for oboe before, but I’ve never been wildly enthusiastic about them. His French Suite, however,  is currently on the list of suitable pieces for ATCL diploma recital, and has much to recommend it. It’s on the tricky side, but it’s quite amusing.

I found the Three Pieces Opus 22 in a box of sheet music in Oxfam. The work is for Cor Anglais & Piano – or Alto Saxophone & Piano – or Clarinet & Piano. This sort of thing always makes me a bit suspicious, because a one-size-fits-all approach like this suggests to me that the composer didn’t really think about the particular qualities and idiosyncrasies of the instrument he was writing for. Another example of the same thing is provided by the famous Schumann Romances: beloved though they are as part of the oboe’s repertoire, they were clearly intended for violin: for we oboists, the second movement is pretty much impossible unless you can breathe through your ears (which I can’t) or do circular breathing (which I can’t).

Anyway, to return to Richardson’s Three Pieces, I’m afraid the first and third pieces score quite highly on the ‘meh’ scale, but the second, the Elegy, is well worth a look. It’s written out in small note values, which looks intimidating at first, but if you break it all down into quavers, it’s really quite straightforward. It has a lovely lilting quality that suits the cor very nicely and it’s not too difficult; it does go up rather high at the Poco largamente, but it’s ff with a diminuendo to f and then mf, so you don’t have to worry about trying to play those high notes at p or pp and inevitably squeezing them sharp. (By way of an aside, I’ve yet to find a really satisfactory top C# on the cor. I’ve found a D, Eb, E, F, F# and G that all work nicely, but the C# eludes me. Whatever I try, it’s thin, weedy and more often than not sharp. Yuck.)

I can’t find any recordings or video performances of the Richardson, but perhaps that’s not surprising. If you can get hold of the music cheaply, it’s worth it for the second movement.

My second piece for today is the fabulous quartet for cor and string trio by Jean Françaix. It’s an absolute gem. Five movements and not a single duffer amongst them – my super special favourite is the third because it’s just triffic. You can hear the first movement and a bit of the second here, but it’s best to skip through the first minute – the players spend ages fiddling with stands and seats and reeds and bows, etc.

One of the commenters notes the strange way in which the cor player holds the instrument – to one side, as you would with a sax or bassoon – and nor have I ever seen this before. I might try it, but I can’t imagine it makes the cor easier to hold. To be honest, it looks like a recipe for a twisted neck to me, but I’ll perhaps try it and see how it feels.

My recording of the Françaix features Lajos Lencsés and the Parisii-Quartett (cpo 999779-2) and I can recommend it. It’s important to bring out the humour in Françaix’s work. I have an absolutely appalling recording of his quartet for oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon which doesn’t work because it’s such an unbearably po-faced performance. The music is laced with a sense of fun and if it’s taken too seriously then it just sounds silly. There’s no room for pomposity in Françaix!

Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Fantasy for Oboe’: a progress update

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I’m still working on this. My teacher set me two tasks for my practice sessions, as outlined in a previous post, and I’m reporting here on progress. Okay, so the first task involved a method for dealing with two passages of rapid semiquavers:

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The idea is to play up to the first note of the bar immediately succeeding the semiquaver run and back down again on a continuous repeat (say four times for each breath), getting faster and faster until the bars in question can be played at speed. After a week of doing this, I’m pleased to report that this is working very well. I can’t play it at speed yet – I’m still quite a long way off – but I can play these bars much faster than I could seven days ago. My fingers are getting used to the pattern of notes and I don’t need the music anymore – which is good, because at this speed, you haven’t really got a hope of actually being able to read it. The notes just have to be there, ready and waiting under your fingers.

The second task was all about how to cope with a nasty two-octave leap:

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Mr McD’s got me slurring this instead of tonguing it. It’s very difficult, but it’s coming along and, even better, I’ve found a nice cheat. My top B is always a bit under and needs a lot of pushing up which makes this exercise even more taxing, but I’ve found that if I add the two bottom fingers of my right hand when playing the top B, this has a twofold effect: 1) the top B is more in tune and a bit louder too. The little bit of extra volume means it’s more in keeping with the trumpety B and Bb at the bottom of the range. 2) With two extra fingers already in place, it’s a bit easier to get the rest of your fingers down quickly enough to play that bottom B in good time.

I’ll keep working on it. I’m also using a similar technique for practising the triplet passages: playing them slurred instead of tongued. If I can remember how I was breathing when I play the notes slurred, and try to imitate that when tonguing them, the tongued triplets then come out sounding far more smooth and even. They’re still a bit too spiky at the moment, with the result that the overall phrasing is rather shapeless.

Lots of work still to be done…

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

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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.

Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Fantasy for Oboe’

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Now, I’m not pretending I can play this piece. Truth be told, I can sort of play it at a fraction of the required speed, but it’s still very much a work in progress and is likely to remain so for some time to come. In my defence, the piece is supposed to be difficult: Arnold wrote it for the Birmingham International Wind Competition which took place in May 1966, and there are all sorts of horrible things here: huge, difficult leaps, tongued triplets, rapid semiquaver runs…yes, nasty stuff, but I think it’s a piece worth learning because a) it’s good for you, and b) it’s actually a great piece, in spite of its horrors. It’s well-suited to the character of the oboe and quite a lot of fun.

I’ve just started work on the Fantasy and I may end up doing more than one post about it, but for the moment, this is where I’ve got to. My teacher gave me a fortnight to look at the entire piece and when we last met I played through the whole thing, but very much under speed. He’s now given me two sections to look at for next time, and I’m to use my practice time to focus on these sections, rehearsing them as follows.

1) Two passages of rapid semiquavers:

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Okay, so what I’ve got to do here is to play slowly up to the D# and then to come back down again (D#-C-Ab etc.) in an endless repeat. The same with this section here:

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Up to the C# and back down again, over and over again, getting faster and faster until it’s up to speed – and the speed is pretty formidable at this point (Presto in 6/8 time, dotted crotchet = 168).

2) Two-octave leap:

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This is fast – the same speed mentioned in 1) above – so not only does the player have to get that bottom B-Bb slur to speak quickly enough, it also has to be in tune and this has to be done three times in a row. At least it’s marked ff instead of pp. I’m to practise all five notes slowly and slurred instead of tongued, the idea being that if you can do it slurred – even if you don’t quite get it up to speed – it should be a doddle when you come to play it tongued.

I’ll let you know how I get on!

Madeleine Dring’s ‘Italian Dance’

Dring Italian Dance headerThis is a lovely little piece and it’s a really good choice for a concert: it sounds flashy without being too difficult and its bouncy tune is guaranteed to get audience toes a-tapping.

My Josef Weinberger edition doesn’t include an exact marking for speed – only Allegro – and you have to bear several things in mind when deciding what sort of pace to set for yourself. For example, the piano part is quite tricky: my teacher only ever manages to put in selected highlights and he won’t even attempt some sections (I’m thinking of the piano solo nine bars before A). So you’ll have to decide on a tempo with your pianist in mind because you both have to be able to play it.

The temptation is to play the piece at too rapid a pace. It certainly feels as if it needs to move along, but there is a real danger that if taken too quickly, the whole thing could end up sounding messy…plus the piece loses a great deal of its poise if the oboist just gabbles through it. You don’t want to take it too slowly either, but don’t forget that you have to be able to tongue the triplets as quickly as you can slur through them, because the last two bars are made up of staccato triplets with a hairpin crescendo and diminuendo towards the final quaver. The whole phrase should swell in the middle and then die away to nothing, without losing any of the precision in the staccato. I suppose the thing to do would be to work out a safe speed for these two final bars and to take that as your pace. I generally aim for dotted crotchet = 125.

There are some bars or sections that simply require slow, careful practice: the arpeggios before D, for example, and those bars with left-hand D#s followed by C#s. I won’t go through those sections here, because there’s not much to say that isn’t obvious: practise the tricky bits slowly, with a metronome, and gradually build up the speed until you can play it perfectly every time. This is certainly something you should do with the two bars before C:

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You’re on your own here, but if you don’t play this absolutely in time, the pianist is going to struggle to pick it up at C. The notes aren’t difficult – it’s just running down and then up a C major scale – but it will stick out a mile if you bungle it. These two bars are something you will have to work at, and it helps if you aim to tongue the E on the third beat as marked.

There are four other practise/performance points I want to pass on here.

1) In the two bars before A (and later again when the same phrase reoccurs before D), keep the air flowing and don’t cut the last note of each triplet short. Think about the shape of the whole phrase – keep it moving forward, but keep it smooth and build a crescendo so that you’re at mf after A and/or D.

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2) In the fifth bar after B, keep the bottom B short – it’s only a quaver! The temptation is to thunder down the scale in the bar beforehand and to trumpet that bottom B, but this doesn’t fit with the bouncy phrases that follow. The dynamic is mf and there’s no crescendo marked so don’t put one in. Keep it mf and keep that B short, light and springy.

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3) The 6/8 bar after B can be confusing, but in fact, the rhythm of this bar is exactly what has passed before. In effect, you almost ignore the quaver rest entirely and move straight on to the top A.

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This is what’s gone before:

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES4) Three bars after D, the oboe part sounds a little odd, but that’s because at this point you are accompanying the piano. You must, therefore, play accurately and quietly. The marking is mp, so don’t blast it out – you can play out a little more when you pick up the tune again, but until then, keep it down.

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Have fun – it’s a great piece!