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J S Bach, Rubbra, Poulenc, Damase, Britten and Saint-Saëns

JS Bach: Sonata in E♭, BWV1031
Rubbra: Oboe Sonata in C, op.100 (1957)
Poulenc: Oboe Sonata (1962)
Jean-Michel Damase: Rhapsodie, op.6 (1948)
Britten: Temporal Variations (1936)

Saint-Saëns: Oboe Sonata, op.166 (1921)

Suzanne Thorn oboe Albina Stulpinaite piano

Royal Academy of Music, London – 1 March 2010

Suzanne Thorn is currently studying at the Royal Academy on an Elton John scholarship and she is the winner of the RAM Club prize, hence this very well planned and executed recital. Ms Thorn already has much concert experience, both solo and orchestral, and she displays a quiet confidence on the concert platform.


Bach’s Sonata is the only one in which he wrote out a full keyboard part, rather than just a figured bass, and it sounds gorgeous when played by a harpsichord. Unfortunately our modern concert grands make rather heavy work of it, especially in the bass. Tonight’s piano was very rich in the bass and this went to slightly muddying the textures of this delicate piece.

Things didn’t improve much with the Rubbra Sonata for his writing is quite bass heavy, indeed, many of the works heard tonight exploited the bass of the keyboard, probably to allow for the high, singing, qualities of the oboe to be heard without being surrounded by a lot of material heard at the same register. Rubbra’s Sonata was written for Evelyn Rothwell and it shows the lyrical qualities of both his musical style and the oboe. Ms Thorn was totally at home in this most melodic of works, allowing the music to breathe and never over emphasising – even the fast finale was slightly held back so that we could hear every strand as it raced past us.


There were two final thoughts in the recital; Poulenc’s last composition and Saint–Saëns’s anti–penultimate work. Poulenc’s Sonata is a work of resignation, in the outer movements, and anger, in the middle, perhaps anger at the brief span of life balancing an acceptance of its ultimate conclusion. Ms Thorn was marvellous in the music of acquiescence, sweetness tinged with a faintly acidic edge, and positively violent in the scherzo – it’s hard to believe that an oboe could unleash such unrestrained passion.


This was an excellent interpretation, as was, to jump ahead, the Sonata of the 86 year old Camille Saint-Saëns. This work is, quite simply, one of the loveliest works I know for this instrument, unforced in its lyricism, easy going in gait - it just pleases. To end with this work was a really marvellous piece of planning for there is a serenity to this music, nowhere does the composer allow thoughts of his mortality to enter into his composition, and the audience could leave with a pleasant glow about them from its spellbinding beauty.


Our octogenarian was preceded by younger men – Damase and Britten – and their works could not have been different. Damase’s early Rhapsodie is a one movement piece playing for some 7 minutes and it is charming, plumbing no depths, but simply enjoying its own melodiousness.


Britten’s Temporal Variations is quite another matter, a set of pieces displaying every facet of the oboe, from an exploitation of the lower register to the wildest of declamations. It’s now seen as an important work in the repertoire but at its premiere in 1936 the critics were none too pleased and the ever critical composer withdrew the music. It remained unplayed for 44 years.


Ms Thorn left us breathless with her virtuosity and, with such a superb performance one was left wondering why this piece remained unknown for so long.


This was a very exciting and rewarding recital from two excellent young players whose names, I am sure, will be heard in the future. I must make one point. I did, on occasion, wonder if, perhaps, Albina Stulpinaite was more of a soloist than a duo partner, but one needs a player of equal virtuosity to work with a soloist of real stature. I am, as always on these occasions, very happy to have been party to the birth of the next generation of performing musicians.


Bob Briggs