Hurd’s ‘Concerto da Camera’, or three ways to play about with an E-flat

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Like Dring’s Italian Dance and Head’s Three Pieces, Michael Hurd’s Concerto da Camera is a good piece to have at the ready just in case you are asked to contribute ‘a little something’ to a concert at short notice. The Concerto has the usual three movements and lasts about 13 minutes without being too taxing for either the player or the audience. That’s not to say that it’s a trite easy-listening piece of froth – no, no. Each movement has its own style and character and they’re all very well-written for the oboe. The second movement in particular could easily be performed as a standalone piece and the third sounds very flashy without being too difficult.

For this post, though, I’m going to focus on the longer first movement. From bars 103 to 117 the oboist is playing unaccompanied in a cadenza-like section: I say cadenza-like because there’s no indication that these bars are to be played in free time and the whole section is only a very mildly muddled-up repetition of what has gone before. It’s a baby cadenza, or perhaps a cadenza-ette. It does, however, contain a tricky little corner in bars 109 and 110 (reproduced above), but the plus side is that these bars are great for practising the three different ways to get around that C-Eb-Ab combination.

(Before moving on, I should note that the first movement is marked Andante con moto, so the semiquavers are not really that fast, but they’re not that slow either.)


 

1. Left-hand Eb sliding to Ab

The first choice available to the player is to play the Ebs which occur in combination with C and Ab with the left-hand Eb key, and slide to the left-hand Ab:

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(The Eb marked in blue with the star is also played with the left-hand Eb key.) This method is okay, but can be a wee bit sticky on my oboe, probably because I haven’t had it serviced for over two years now and it could do with a bit of loving care. Anyway, this is probably the most instinctive choice for me because it’s largely how I was taught to deal with passages such as this, but there are other options.


2. Slide from the C key to the Eb with the right-hand little finger

This takes some practice, but it is possible to do this smoothly and it’s very handy if you can do it.

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(Note that the blue starred Eb is played using the left-hand Eb key – unless you want to have a go at sliding back and forth, of course, but there does come a point at which you have to ask whether or not you are making it needlessly difficult for yourself!)

Now, my teacher has offered three pieces of advice concerning this method.

  • Don’t use the tip of your finger: slide from the first knuckle joint. This means you have to mentally prepare for this manoeuvre in the preceding bar (bar 108) and remember to plonk your finger down on the C key in such a way that you can slide across from the knuckle.
  • Practise sliding from C to Eb and back to C again slowly and repeatedly. Increase the speed until it’s almost a slow trill, but don’t lose control of it: the sound when moving from one note to the next should be smooth with no bumps in between.
  • Everyone has a greasy patch at the side of their nose – please don’t be offended, it’s true – and you can make use of this grease to lubricate the side of the finger: this will make the sliding much easier. So, if you’re going to use this technique, mark a point in the music where you have enough time to wipe your right-hand little finger down the side of your nose – in this case, it would be during the six bars’ rest after letter G – and practise doing so when playing with your accompanist or on your own with a metronome.

I quite like this option, although at the moment, it doesn’t feel as secure as making use of one of the keys. However, I’ll carry on practising it because if I can get myself to the stage where I can slide about efficiently and effectively, it’ll make Eb a lot less scary than it is now.

This brings me to the final option.


3.  Using the right-hand Ab in combination with the left-hand Eb

This, oddly enough, is the option I’m favouring at the moment, because I hardly ever use the right-hand Ab and I think I ought to be able to (see also the relevant section in a post on Gordon Jacob). It’s not really that difficult, and like everything else, it’s just a question of practising enough so that your fingers know where to go and you don’t have to think about it.

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So, here what you’re doing is playing the blue Ebs with the left-hand Eb key, and using the first finger on your right hand to play the red Abs using the long right-hand Ab key. I think it’s a good choice because to me it feels the most secure: as long as you can remember to get the other fingers on your right hand out of the way quickly enough, it works very well. This method is very useful in this passage in particular, because the note that follows those right-hand Abs in both instances is a G, so all you have to do is take your right hand away and hey presto! It’s surprisingly easy.


And there you have it. I’ve now incorporated a quick run-through of these three options into my practise sessions using these very bars, with the eventual aim of being entirely comfortable with all three options no matter what the particular note-combination. It’ll take a while, but I think it’ll be worth it.

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!