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!

21st June 2014, Reading Symphony Orchestra in the Great Hall at the University of Reading

21st June 2014, Reading Symphony Orchestra in the Great Hall at the University of Reading

Programme as follows:

Overture: Light Cavalry – Suppé

The Golden Spinning Wheel – Dvořák (read the disturbing story of this opera on the Wikipedia page!)

Rhapsody in Blue – Gershwin

Daphnis et Chloé, Suite # 2 – Ravel