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Richard Rodney Bennett has so far completed three concertos for solo instrument and orchestra, although a fourth – for viola – is planned for the near future. Meanwhile, the size of the forces employed in the Concerto for oboe and strings (1969-70) places it midway between the concerto for piano and large orchestra (1968) and that for guitar and chamber orchestra (1970).
The oboe concerto is a genuinely virtuoso piece, directly inspired by the astonishing technical abilities of Heinz Holliger. Nevertheless, its wide-ranging instrumental lines are essentially melodic in character, so that the ‘brilliance’ of the writing is an integral part of its florid espressivo – successfully avoiding any temptation to develop a ‘surface’ virtuosity as an end in itself.
The first movement has three main elements: the stabbing, sforzando repetitions which outline the opening chords, and the ‘rocking’ accompaniment to the first, declamatory oboe entry which – after a hazy reminder of the opening –eventually fades into a more meditatively expansive theme on the oboe. These three ideas are developed both separately and together, in opposition to the solo part and in collaboration with it, until the orchestral climax reaches a cadence of fortissimo repeated chords, with the violins sustaining a high G – which then launches the oboe cadenza.
This solo ‘bridge’ between the two movements ends on the same high G with which it began – merging imperceptibly into a pianissimo chord (built almost entirely of string harmonics) which echoes the fortissimo repetitions at the end of the first movement. Muted cellos introduce a low-lying, fluttering figure which is repeated, in canon, as it rises towards the very top of the string compass. The oboe entry proposes a cantabile augmentation of this theme, against a string accompaniment of increasing density (beginning with one solo violin) – and then develops it in conjunction with the more nervously ornate version, in a ‘two-part’ canonic cadenza. This twofold thematic development is taken up by the strings, before the cantabile oboe theme reappears against a background of lightly repeating chords. A more urgent version of the ‘development’ is now a fourfold canon between oboe and the lower strings, leading to a fortissimo restatement of the opening bars – which fades to reveal a final glimpse of the first movement.
The Oboe Concerto was commissioned by the English Chamber Orchestra, and is dedicated to Heinz Holliger.
The Royal Philharmonic Society, Programme, 4 April 1973