Friday 24 May 2013

Exceptional performances by James Turnbull of English works for oboe on a recent release from Champs Hill Records

James Turnbull is one of Britain’s most accomplished oboists. He began studying the oboe at the age of seven with the teachers Irene Pragnell, Melanie Ragge , Celia Nicklin , Tess Miller  and Chris Cowie . After gaining a First Class degree in music from Christ Church, Oxford University, he continued his oboe studies at the Royal Academy of Music and under Nicholas Daniel at Trossingen Musikhochschule in Germany, where he was awarded First Class for both his Artist and Soloist Diplomas.

Gramophone Magazine described his first recital disc, Fierce Tears, as ‘a notable debut’ and Classical Music selected it as their Editor’s Choice Recording. Turnbull has performed frequently throughout the UK and Europe and has appeared as a soloist in live radio broadcasts and at festivals including the Oxford Chamber Music Festival, Swaledale Festival, King’s Lynn Festival and Cambridge Summer Music. In 2010, he performed his debut recital at the Wigmore Hall as a Maisie Lewis award winner from the Worshipful Company of Musicians.

Turnbull is deeply committed to expanding the oboe repertoire. Composers including Patrick Hawes , Thomas Hewitt Jones and Norbert Froehlich  have written for him. He has also worked closely with Michael Berkeley , John Casken, John Woolrich , Thea Musgrave  and Tansy Davies  on their compositions for oboe. Turnbull has a keen interest in researching lost repertoire and bringing to new audiences works which have been rarely performed. 

Turnbull is dedicated to broadening the appeal of the oboe and encouraging young people to learn the instrument. This has led to his launching a project called ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Oboe’ with an accompanying website  He is frequently invited to give masterclasses, workshops, and lectures about the oboe. James Turnbull plays a Lorée Royal Oboe and Cor Anglais.

Two of the above composers, Michael Berkeley and John Casken, appear on a new disc by James Turnbull, entitled The English Oboe, which also features works by Edmund Rubbra, Edward Longstaff, Thomas Attwood Walmisley, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. From Champs Hill Records , this recent release also features Libby Burgess (piano) , Matthew Featherstone (flute)  and Dan Shilladay (viola).  


Edmund Rubbra’s (1901-1986) Sonata in C for oboe and piano, Op.100 was written in 1958 for Evelyn Rothwell and first performed by her on 17th October that year at the Arts Council Drawing Room, London. In the plaintive opening Con moto, with little trills for piano and oboe, there is a lovely ebb and flow to the playing of James Turnbull and pianist Libby Burgess, so sensitive to the varying moods that underlie this piece. The glorious Elegy receives a really fine performance with Libby Burgess providing a lovely accompaniment, bringing out the upbeat nature of the piano part that gives this movement such a feeling of being pulled in two directions. In the Presto Turnbull and Burgess both provide some brilliant playing to bring this lovely work to an end.

Edward Longstaff, Assistant Director of Music at the Purcell School wrote Aegeus for oboe and piano in 1996. It is inspired by the story of Aegeus sitting on the cliffs above the sea, waiting vainly for Theseus to return from slaying the Minotaur. The piano opens this work with a fragmented motif before the oboe enters in a melody based on the opening motif. James Turnbull provides some impressive sounds, drawing various timbres from his oboe that, throughout, represents King Aegeus in his lonely vigil. Later the oboe plays a motif reminiscent of the piano opening and, as the work progresses, the tension increases, hope and despair seem to pull the music either way. There are anguished sounds from the oboe and crashing piano chords before the work ends quietly.

Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814-1856) was born in London and later became organist at Trinity College, Cambridge and, simultaneously, organist for the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge. His best known work is his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in D minor. On this disc we have his Sonatina No.1 for oboe and piano. This is a gentle piece, with a lovely flowing melody and a rippling piano part. It rises to no great heights or depths but contains some very attractive melodies. These artists manage to bring out all of the gentle feeling in this work.

John Caskin (b.1949) was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire and read Music at the University of Birmingham, studying Composition under John Joubert and Peter Dickinson. He later studied in Poland with Andrzej Dobrowolski at the Academy of Music in Warsaw during which time he formed a close association and friendship with Witold Lutosławski. He has written many works in most genres and is represented here by his strangely named Amethyst Deceiver for solo oboe (2009). Amethyst Deceiver’s are tiny purple mushrooms, an idea that led to Caskin imagining a mysterious woodland where they grow.

This World Premiere recording opens with strange little slides on the oboe with some intricate staccato notes jumping around. James Turnbull again draws some exquisite sounds from his oboe. The piece becomes more melodic as it progresses, still with some pointed little phrases, jazzy at times, with an impish feel. There is a gentler middle section before soon returning to the opening tempo and ending quietly. Turnbull gives a terrific performance, virtuosic in its intricate manner.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)  is represented by a rare work -   Terzetto for flute, oboe and viola written in 1925. The opening Allegretto has some quite original sounds created by Holst’s use of polytonality, written in three keys simultaneously. It is written with Holst’s typically cool sound and with the three instruments sounding quite terse at times, yet still very melodic. The cello enters followed by the flute, then the oboe in a dancing Un poco vivace. There is a slow middle section that gently meanders along before the dance returns to rollick forward. The music slows again before the dance theme returns. JamesTurnbull, Matthew Featherstone (flute) and Dan Shilladay (viola) give an exceptional performance of this little known gem.

Michael Berkeley (b.1948) is well known as a composer and broadcaster. His   Three Moods for Unaccompanied Oboe were originally written for Janet Craxton who gave their first performance in 1978.  What a lovely work Michael Berkeley’s Three Moods is. The opening movement marked Very free. Moderato has a lovely melody, with upward and downward scales. There are staccato phrases and gentle arabesques based on the opening three note motif, all brilliantly played by Turnbull. The section movement, Fairly free. Andante, weaves some fine textures in this a modern take on a pastoral sound. The final Giocoso tests the oboist in music that is, by turns, intricate, slowly melodic and fast and taxing. It blends so well with the other movements to make a fine conclusion.  

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)  wrote his Six Studies in English Folksong in 1926 originally for cello and piano.  It was later arrange for various instruments and in this recording for cor anglais and piano (1926)

What more can be said about Vaughan Williams’ beautiful Six Studies in English Folksong other than that this arrangement by Robert Stanton brings out even more of the composer’s poignant, timeless folk influenced beauty. James Turnbull is superb, creating something more than usually evocative and Libby Burgess adds so much with her fine playing. I’ve fallen in love with this work all over again.

These are wonderful performances of a variety of English works. The recording made in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, England is crystal clear.

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