CD review: Christopher Redgate: New Music for a New Oboe, Volume 1 (Métier)

British oboist Christopher Redgate has had a busy release schedule of late. I recently received another new release, Electrifying Oboe (Métier), which I hope to write about soon. This isn’t far behind last year’s New Music for a New Oboe (volume 1), also on Métier, and for which I offer a belated review here.

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Redgate is one of the great instrumental innovators of our day – on any instrument – and both recordings may be seen as part of a lifelong project to develop the oboe’s repertory and capabilities that has previously been traced on recordings like Oboe+ and Greatest Hits of All Time.

The oboe is a peculiarly inflexible instrument, compared to the flute or clarinet, for example, and it is no surprise that over the years Redgate has run into any number of limitations, including with range, multiphonics, microtones, glissandi and various timbral effects. In response to these problems – both already extant in the repertory, and anticipated in the future – between 2009 and 2012 Redgate partnered with Howarth’s of London (the Steinway & Sons of oboes) to design an oboe for the 21st century. The new instrument, the Howarth-Redgate oboe, tackles many of these issues and opens new doors for exploration in the future – the number of multiphonics available, for example, is reported to have increased four-fold.

In some ways Edwin Roxburgh is an ideal introduction to Redgate’s series of commissions for the new instrument. An oboist himself, as well as a composer and conductor, he knows the instrument better than most. Redgate has already recorded a CD of Roxburgh’s oboe music, and there is clearly a strong rapport between the two. Roxburgh’s four-part suite, The Well-Tempered Oboe was written to exploit the new high register and multiphonics of the Howarth-Redgate oboe; the latter are heard to best effect in the slow third movement, ‘Chromatic Fantasia’.

Yet despite having admired Redgate’s last Roxburgh recording, I confess I’ve not been blown away by The Well-Tempered Oboe. Nothing wrong with the playing: Redgate’s multiphonics in the fourth movement are sensational, for example. The music is just a little too polite for my tastes; for all that the composer had an exciting new instrument to play with, his pieces didn’t find a particularly new kind of music for it.

Michael Finnissy’s Âwâz-e Niyâz is something else altogether. For a start, it introduces the sound of the lupophon, a type of bass oboe whose range begins at the F at the bottom of the bass clef and extends some indeterminate distance (and in Redgate’s hands, who can really say …) above the treble clef. Quite an instrument. Its timbre is very oboe-like (quite different from a bassoon, eg), so in the couple of octaves where the two instruments’ ranges overlap it’s not always easy to be sure which one is playing.

Christopher Redgate and lupophon

The second striking thing about Finnissy’s piece is its length: an unbroken 55 minutes, a quite epic scale for a duo for oboe and piano. This is not a trivial observation. Finnissy is no stranger to constructing immense formal structures, even for solo instruments – see only his cycles for piano, for example – but unlike, say, Folklore or The History of Photography in Sound, Âwâz-e Niyâz is not as indebted to such a complex an intermeshing of stylistic and genre types. Or at least not as far as I am aware; I may be wrong. Âwâz-e Niyâz is rather a gigantic melodic unspooling.

The vast expansion beyond the norm is made possible first by the lupophone itself, whose weight and depth of sound extend, from the first bars, a giant bed for the music, extending its horizons far beyond the usual and expected. It is as though the music were stood on its end, its duration a function of its tessitura and vice versa. Range is not the only dimension that has been expanded, however – the new sounds, microtones and multiphonics at Finnissy’s disposal represent a similar increase in material whose exploration adds further possibilities for extension.

In his sleevenote, Finnissy explains that the music is inspired by traditional Persian music, particularly the Iranian vocal improvisations collected by Mohammad Taghi Massoudieh. It is therefore shaped by the long melodic arcs of improvised song, of ornaments upon ornaments, of recurring fragments and whispy filigree. There is a dream-like quality to much of it; sometimes the texture thins to only the faintest hint of something (an extraordinary passage of hushed mutliphonic trills about half an hour, for example), sometimes (although less frequently) the tendrils thicken into great tangled knots. It is a peculiar, surprising one-off that perhaps only Finnissy could have made.

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