It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (often meant in a disparaging way), so when charged with celebrating Mozart’s 250th anniversary many present-day composers might well be tempted to make something old new again. When further narrowed down to creating works with the same instrumentation as the beloved Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370, the challenge is especially daunting. How can one improve on that classical gem?
Wisely, James Rolfe’s answer was to “write something new.” The resulting work is a pair of contrasting movements that most assuredly makes the most of oboist James Mason’s phenomenal technique and beautifully centred tone, largely leaving the strings in the role of accompanists and commentators. “Alla Marcia” immediately commands attention with its Prokofiev-like hue and Stravinsky-informed push/pull/stop rhythms, tempi and structure. While the length of notes doesn’t always match between reed and bow, there is an abundance of fun, drama and marvellously arid patches that happily balance the two distinct methods of tone creation.
Similarly, the pizzicato-rich “Moderato” is ideal for Mason’s melodic interventions and tastefully rendered ornaments. The mid-movement octave conversations (occasionally demonstrating why some consider that interval to be the most difficult to pass amongst friends) are the perfect foil to the answering dissonances (which even the classical genius used to great effect). The closing section’s full bows exude confidence and strength before everyone returns to darkness and then vanish into the night.
Michael Oesterle’s “sunscape” is a welcome addition to the repertoire. The unbridled energy of the opening unison lights the fire both musically and emotionally—the ideal tonic to what just proceeded. With so much interplay, the homage to the master is as discreet as it is effective: Mason truly flies while his colleagues burn, maintaining the undercurrent of heat via double stop shafts of colour, relentless repeated notes or ethereal harmonics. Margaret Gay sets a high standard for crisp, clear lines that are barely matched by her colleagues, yet all combine and convince in the several down-East episodes—spiced up with Bartók snaps—that, at once, set the toes a tappin’. As the sections progress, there’s a feeling that the oboe is valiantly trying to tame his musical partners—Who Loves This Sun? (cross-reference below)—but Nature has the last word as the great ball of colour slips beneath the horizon and calm returns anew.
The only work not written for the Mozart fest is the most mesmerizing of the set. “Movement I” of John Abram’s Oboe Quartet allows Mason to display his magnificent control of tone colour and dynamics. The strings are mostly interveners be that bowed chords or plucked/snapped/“legnoed” attacks—a very rich soup of sound-production effects. Intriguingly similar to Phil-sung Yim’s Hansel and Gretel (cross-reference below), the oboe tries valiantly to find his way out of the sonic forest, but seems destined to remain.
“Movement II,” with its aura of Argentinean Tango (due in no small part to Gay’s contributions as guitar, bass and drum as well as Julie Baumgartel’s seductive scraps of melody), is continually engaging. Patrick Jordan’s patiently rendered, somewhat dissonant “glue” (following a motif that could trace its way back to “Three Blind Mice” or Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, depending on your point of view) is rewarded with an inverted line of his own before Mason completes his impressive last gasp, deftly punctuated by the rest.
The curiosity of the disc is Peter Hatch’s Mozart collage, Wiki Mozart. The “real time” players weave their way in, out and around a collection of Mozart samples lifted from the Internet. The music combinations are wonderful metaphors for our hurry-up era (Mozart: All the Complete Works, Abridged). The human interventions (“The A Clarinet Concerto” is introduced in a manner that assumes there must also be a “B Clarinet Concerto” ...; Tom Hulce’s repulsive laugh and the famous “too many notes” line—cross-reference below) made me wish for the opportunity to edit out the babble (in the true spirit of Wikipedia) and let the music speak for itself. Failing that, a re-hearing of Quartetto Italiano’s incredible recording of the String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421 soon washed any lingering unpleasantness away. JWR