Both Arthur Bliss' Oboe Quintet and Benjamin Britten's Phantasy Quartet were written for the British oboe virtuoso Leon Goossens, who might be said with only moderate exaggeration to have done for the oboe what Pablo Casals did for the cello: that is, made it a more prominent and admired instrument in the mind of the general public. The two works have often been paired on LP and CD, with CDs typically filled out by another Goossens commission. Cedille and the Vermeer Quartet have chosen a more unusual complement: a late (though oboeless) quartet of Britten that pairs in fascinating ways with the composer's very youthful oboe quartet. The CD separates the two Britten works with the Bliss — an unfortunate arrangement, I would argue, partly because the Bliss is the earliest of the three works (1927 vs. 1932 and 1975) but mostly because it occupies such a different sound world from Britten's, and its placement blocks our appreciation of how much Britten changed and yet remained recognizably the same over a nearly 40-year span. Of course, it's easy enough to program one's CD player to get the order one prefers.
Arthur Bliss composed symphonies, ballets, movie soundtracks (Things to Come) and choral works as well as chamber music. His Oboe Quintet is a lovely, engaging work that continues to be rewarding after repeated listenings. One might think that a work that follows a moderately paced first movement (Assai sostenuto) with a moderately paced second one (Andante con moto) would tend toward the soporific, even if both movements feature faster middle sections, but each casts a distinctive spell. The work opens with just the strings playing a wistful theme; they carry on almost long enough to create a surprise when the oboe slips unobtrusively into the stream of sound. Once present, it rhapsodizes with the strings, then ends the movement solo on a single long-sustained note. Though the movement has a slow-fast-slow structure, there is a sense of continual development, with no plain repetition of material.
The Andante con moto begins with a melody strikingly close to a famous theme from Leonard Rosenman's Rebel Without a Cause score (nearly 30 years later). It is heard cloaked in various guises as the movement progresses, most memorably in a section with the oboe line against pizzicato strings, and later as a passionate climax to the movement, which subsides to a quiet close. The finale is, not unexpectedly, a Vivace, but quite a bit more aggressive and quirky than one would expect from a movement that quotes a traditional jig at one point.
Alex Klein, former principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony, plays with warmth and easy virtuosity. There is much to be said in praise of the more reedy, even strident tone that some oboists display — the kind of sound that can cut through the mellower sound of some string quartets through sheer contrast. Klein does not so much contrast as richly partner the Vermeer Quartet — a perfect ensemble of joyful music making.
Britten was only 19 when he wrote his Phantasy Quartet (only his Sinfonietta has an earlier opus number), but the work is strikingly more modern and original than the Bliss. A one-movement piece with a series of linked sections, it begins and ends with a march rhythm, set by the strings with an oboe melody above it. In between the march sections we hear a vigorous allegro, with a new theme passed among the oboe and string soloists; an extended section for the strings alone, first slow and lilting, then agitated, then subsiding to a new slow section where the oboe dominates with a long-lined lyrical outpouring; and a recap of themes before the march fades into silence. All this in less than 14 minutes. The work may have a youthful playfulness about it, but it is highly suggestive of the mature Britten, full of that sense of fantastic improvisation, the endlessly inventive spinning out of lines that one hears in his operatic and symphonic as well as chamber works. Again, the tonal beauty and rhythmic vitality of Klein and the Vermeer make this a version of the Quartet to listen to again and again.
The five-movement Third String Quartet that concludes this recital was one of Britten's last works. Though its formal complexity can hardly be described in a short review, it too feels at times improvised, fantastic and even playful, despite its quotations from the composer's opera Death in Venice from the previous year. Critics typically hear the work as an autobiographical statement, like the quartets of Janácek and Shostakovich, but it's certainly satisfying as absolute music. Adjectives such as "somber," "lamenting" and "melancholy" seem downright wrong for this music, though perhaps "wistful," "tender" or "resigned" will do for some passages, and there is at least some serenity in the final movement, called "La Serenissima," in reference to Venice. The Vermeer Quartet have had this work in their repertoire for quite some time, and their performance is a great one, responsive to the varied moods and tremendous technical demands. (Listen to the end of the third movement, called "Solo," with the first violin's melody surrounded by fantastic twitterings from the others, or the ensemble work throughout the opening "Duets" movement.)
This is expected to be the last recording of the Vermeer, who plan to retire at the end of this season after a career dating back to 1969 and a long residency at Northern Illinois University. It was generous of them to share their final recording with oboist Alex Klein, and to share their readings of all three English works (they learned the Bliss especially for the recording) with us.