Phoenix: a CD of music for oboe (Nicola Hands) and piano (Jonathan Pease).5*****.William Ruff

Nicola Hands (oboe) and Jonathan Pease (piano)


Phoenix: music for oboe and piano


EMR Records




Review: William Ruff



A delightful recording of ear-opening repertoire


Recordings of music for oboe/cor anglais and piano aren’t exactly thick on the ground.  So this new CD of music performed by Nicola Hands and Jonathan Pease is to be welcomed: for its imaginative, wide-ranging and often surprising programme as well as the immaculate playing of both artists.


They have entitled their disc Phoenix, after the ‘world première recording’ of Paul Patterson’s Phoenix Sonata, a chamber version of his Phoenix Concerto.  It is a work full of energy and tunefulness.  After a brief cadenza the first movement launches into a bouncy, spiky Allegro vivace which tests the nimble fingers of both players.  The central Tranquillo is full of the mystery of the orient, recalling exotic birdsong and adding eastern flavours to the mix.  The final Allegro molto is highly virtuosic, full of unpredictable changes of tempo and direction.  The playing throughout is exhilarating,


The disc contains two other world première recordings.  The fact that one purports to be by Delius may seem unlikely, but the detailed and illuminating CD booklet explains that what Nicola and Jonathan perform as his Harmonic Variations in fact started life as Delius’ Dance Rhapsody no 1.  Composer Robert Thelfall has taken that score’s part for the bass oboe and transformed it into a showpiece for cor anglais.  Nicola Hands is a most persuasive advocate for it in this form, capturing its perky, smiling, dancing character to the full.


The other first recording is of music by Jonathan Pease himself and is a testimony to both his talent as a composer and to his close musical partnership with Nicola Hands.  Placed centrally on the disc, Westbourne Nocturne for cor anglais and piano seems to expand beyond its ten-minute duration.  As befits night music, there are some beautiful light effects, the opening plaintive atmosphere soon becoming urgently passionate before settling into pastoral tranquillity.  There is much lovely, smoothly flowing and lyrical music at the Nocturne’s core before once again turbulence intrudes before the final moments of peaceful reflection.  The close rapport between the players can be heard at every twist and turn.


Jonathan Dove must win the prize for most intriguingly alliterative title: Lament for a Lovelorn Lenanshee (a sort of Irish fairy).  Here the music is almost balletic, full of surprises, sometimes plaintive, sometimes urgent, often defying expectations.


Michael Berkley’s Snake (for solo cor anglais), inspired by the D H Lawrence poem, expresses every aspect of the reptile: its menace and its movement, darting forward in quest of prey one moment, waiting, watching, fossil-like the next.  Nicola is in her element as she rapidly switches from one mood to the next: sinuous smoothness giving way to rapid slithering accompanied by some wonderful glissando effects.


William Alwyn’s Sonata further demonstrates the players’ almost telepathic communication.  The three movements explore a wide emotional range: lonely vulnerability gives way to a growing confidence of mood.  Nicola’s control of long, sustained notes and the wide leaps between registers are impressive – as is the final waltz whose jerky, restless rhythms see the players almost as dance partners.


In his Country Dances Richard Rodney Bennett returned to an enthusiasm of his youth: the music of the English baroque and medieval eras.  After a friend introduced him to John Playford’s The English Dancing Master, a collection of tunes published between 1651 and 1728, Bennett began arranging the dances for different musical combinations.  The set of four for oboe and piano (which opens the CD) are delightful using the oboe/piano in both nostalgically yearning mode and as sprightly dancers, light on their feet.  Nicola and Jonathan make the concluding Nobody’s Jig great fun with crisp, witty, precisely timed rhythms – as well as its innocent echoes of Three Blind Mice.


As well as first-rate playing this CD offers exemplary sound.  The recording took place at Plumcroft Primary School in Woolwich.  There can’t be many primary schools which own a new Steinway grand – but they chose their instrument well and are clearly putting it to good use.   Jonathan Pease plays it with imaginative insight, relishing the wide colour palette demanded by the adventurous programme.  Nicola Hands’ playing of both oboe and cor anglais is penetrating, elegant and wonderfully flexible.  Together they have created a delightful recording of ear-opening repertoire.


Nicola Hands, oboe and cor anglais


Jonathan Pease, piano


Phoenix: music for oboe and piano is published by EMR Records (EMR CD066)


John Croft, recording engineer


Tom Hammond, recording producer


  1. M. Marshall-Luck, EM Records Executive Producer



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