15 October 2016 – Aldworth Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’

mahler-768x578This coming Saturday, I’ll be playing 4th oboe/2nd cor anglais with the APO in Mahler’s wonderful 2nd symphony, ‘Resurrection’. More details and information about ticket purchasing on APO’s website here. This is my first Mahler outing and it’s been fabulous so far! To be honest, Mahler is much more fun than I thought it was going to be, but I’m not sure where my dour preconceptions came from.

We’ll be in the Great Hall at the London Road campus of the University of Reading, kick-off at 7.30pm. There’ll be a 15-minute interval after the 1st movement, because this is a biggie.

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!

Concerts in March 2015

I have two concerts coming up at the end of this month, the first on cor with the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra as part of the Petersfield Music Festival:

Date: Saturday 21 March 2015

Venue: Petersfield Festival Hall, Heath Road, Petersfield GU31 4EA

Vaughan Williams: Toward the Unknown Region 
Elgar: Enigma Variations
Finzi: Intimations of Immortality 

Tickets available online via the link above.

The second concert is with the Reading Symphony Orchestra on 28 March in the Great Hall on the London Road campus of the University of Reading. The concert poster showing details of how to book is available via the RSO link above or as a pdf here: RSOPosterMar15. The RSO will be joined by almost 40 members of the Orchester der Landesregierung Düsseldorf e.V. for this one, so it’s going to be a biggie.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no. 2 (yum!)
Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (also yum, but an absolute jawbreaker. Lips of steel required.)
Screenshot of the poster below:
RSO 28Mar2015

The steadying influence of the B and B-flat keys


Unless you have one of those Model M2 Marigaux instruments with the tiny top joint, middle G is just an awful note because of how the oboe is put together and where the join lies. My middle G is almost always flat and dull-sounding, which makes this moment in the 2nd Oboe part from Strauss’ Don Juan absolute torture to play:


You have three bars’ rest before you come in, and the sf on the F makes it a little easier, but then you have to dim. down to pp while moving up to a G, and this is gruesome. If you do manage to hit the G in the middle, chances are it will sag as you try to maintain the pp. I only managed to play the G in tune once during rehearsals and it came out resoundingly flat in the concert – happy times! But my teacher has since told me that if you put the F key down when playing a G, it sharpens the note a little and gives it a slightly more steady and pleasing tone:


This does work on my oboe, but the difference is very slight and it’s fiddly trying to get to the F key without depressing another key by mistake. Even so, I wish I’d known this before playing the Strauss, because it would have been easy given that I was already playing an F – all I had to do was leave my third finger down! – but in trickier passages, this fingering is possibly just too fiddly to be feasible.

There is an alternative, however. If you don’t have a B to C link on your instrument, the B/Bb keys are marvellous for this sort of thing. Playing a G with the B/Bb keys depressed means that, on my oboe at least, the middle G will almost be in tune – hooray! – and with a little bit of lipping up, that’s job done. I’m not suggesting you use this fingering every time, of course, but it’s a useful tip if you’ve got something like the Strauss on your hands, or the infamous Ds to Gs in the first of Nielsen’s Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano:


Nasty. But not as nasty as…


But that D-G leap is easier if you put the B/Bb keys down.

And in fact, when playing a bottom Bb, always put the B key down as well if you can. It increases your chances of actually getting the note to sound.


The B key can help on the cor too, in steadying the bottom D. The bottom D on my cor is a bit sharp, but if I put the B key down, D comes out in tune every time. And that’s what you want, really.


The BHOB peg: more about slings and stands

The BHOB peg

Since penning a review of slings and stands for the cor anglais, it’s been brought to my attention that Howarth’s are now selling the BHOB peg. I’ve pasted below Howarth’s Facebook update about this peg:

“There is a new instrument support available for those who need to relieve the weight of their instrument. Inspired by the no longer produced “FHRED”, the BHOB is RDG’s own version of the popular telescoping support peg. The BHOB is a thin, adjustable peg that attaches to any thumbrest with a ring and rests on the chair between the legs of the performer.’ This new support can be used on the oboe, cor anglais and clarinet (with an adapter). You can find them on our website here.”

The BHOB peg is currently listed at £42.95. I’m quite happy with my floor stand for the cor and I don’t think I need any extra support for the oboe at the moment, but this might come in useful if I decide to take up the clarinet properly. I bought a clarinet in a charity shop ages ago, and have only really footled about with it for the moment, but I’ve noticed that it’s much heavier than the oboe. If I do end up playing the clarinet more than twice a year, I may punt out for a BHOB peg, but, and without wishing to be pernickety, I have noticed a small problem. The thing is that the young woman modelling the peg in Howarth’s photo is about four or five times smaller than I am, and I usually wear long full skirts to hide my ever-increasing girth. The peg fits snugly between slim be-jeaned legs, but it’s going to be awkward for me in a tent-size skirt to sit comfortably with this – and what about trying to use the peg when wearing my posh concert frock? But sitting astride a peg thrust into about an acre of bunched-up material is still more comfortable than tendonitis.