Althea Talbot-Howard
Oboe, Oboe d'Amore & Cor Anglais Soloist

CD Reviews

Gramophone | Listener | Double Reed News | Rob Barnett, MusicWeb | John France, Music Web

"This is music–making of the highest order."

Rob Barnett, Music Web

"From Leipzig to London"

"A cleverly designed programme with three Bach sonata arrangements, one each for oboe, oboe d'amore and cor anglais, interwoven with contemporary works. Althea Ifeka is a superb oboist with a slightly plangent tone which fits well with the harpsichord, as the engaging Gordon Jacob Sonatina shows with its variety of invention, splicing melancholy, wit and geniality. Here the balance seems ideal but in the Bach, beautifully played by both parties, I would prefer the oboe d'amore and cor anglais (both of which have a slightly more robust timbre) to be just a little less forward. But the Andante of BWV 1028 is so beautifully played that I really must not grumble."

"Stephen Dodgson's pastiche Suite (for oboe) works particularly well, but as his wife is a harpsichordist he no doubt had a few balance tips. Elizabeth Maconchy always makes you sit up. She writes effectively, ruggedly and intensely; but you have to listen carefully here, until she relents in the heart–touching cadenza in the closing Vivo. Michael Head's Siciliana, an Italian dance form, is then haunting by being utterly English. Most stimulating."

Ivan March, Gramophone, September 2006


"From Leipzig to London"

"I have just bought a copy of your recent CD: just wanted to say it's absolutely gorgeous! Lovely programme and the sound quality (both of the recording and the sound you make) is fantastic! It is very much a CD I can put on and relax to – there are not many oboe recordings I can say that about!"

From Ms Laura Manning, London, April 2006


"From Leipzig to London"

"The subtitle of this CD is 'Duo Sonatas from the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries'. None of the three Bach obbligato sonatas Althea Ifeka and Katharine May have chosen were originally written for the oboe, though the G–minor BWV 1020 was probably intended for the flute or violin. The other two, BWV 1027 and 1028 are transcriptions of two sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord.

"The four twentieth–century pieces by British composers – Gordon Jacob, Stephen Dodgson, Elizabeth Maconchy and Michael Head – were all written for the famous duo that Evelyn Roghwell formed with Valda Aveling.

"Not having heard Althea play since the outset of ther career, when she came to the RAM as a postgraduate student, it is most inspiring to hear her now, several years on, performing with such fluency and authority. She and Katharine must have worked a great deal together, and have given much thought to style, character and interpretation of the pieces. As a result, their ensemble is superb, as is the balance.

"This CD has appeal for all ages and stages, but especially for younger players who may be studying the twentieth century pieces. On this recording they can hear them performed with harpsichord, as originally intended by the composers, rather than with piano. The playing of these pieces is lively and technically assured and the various moods of the works are well presented. The oboe tone occasionally suffers in the high register, and overall I feel that, in both these and in the Bach sonatas, there could have been more dynamics. The harpsichord in this respect is limited, so the oboe has a crucial role to play in conveying the dynamic intention. Message given must be message received.

"What I enjoyed most was their playing of the Bach gamba sonatas, BWV 1027 (transposed into B flat major for the cor anglais) and BWV 1028 (transposed into B major for the oboe d'amore). In both these works, Althea's tone is beautiful – warm, centred and even throughout the register. The tempi are well chosen and both players show and innate sensitivity and understanding of baroque articulation. The slow movements have spacious singing quality and the faster ones are buoyant and dance–like. More attention cold have been paid, though, to the use of eighteenth century 'Affekt'.

"These sonatas certainly pose challenges for the oboist in terms of stamina and breath control, but Althea's playing is effortless and I could just sit back and enjoy the Duo's music–making without a trace of anxiety – what a treat!"

Tess Miller, Double Reed News, Autumn 2006

"From Leipzig to London"

Oboe Classics CC2013

"Contrast of repertoire and contrast of instrumental timbre are the order of the day. The gloaming honey of the oboe and its brethren set off by the tangy resonance of the harpsichord. The most obvious contrast, accentuated by alternation of works, is between Bach's sonatas and the various 20th century British pieces. In fact, as can be seen, three of the British items are from 1972 when the music of Jacob and Head was being overrun by a dissonant orthodoxy then having reached muscular maturity.

"The Bach works were originally believed to date from his Cöthen years. The current academic convention is that they belong to the Leipzig period (1723–1750). None were originally written for the instruments played here. BWV 1020 was for flute while BMV 1027 and 1028 were for viola da gamba. The three are nicely varied within the recital by each being played by a different instrument: oboe d'amore, cor anglais and oboe. They are played with grace and eloquent feeling within the baroque conventions familiar to all from the four orchestral suites and Brandenburg concertos. You will almost certainly make new friends among these three with the cor anglais being more stately and less agile and limber than its brethren in BWV 1028 and 1020.

"Let's look at the three 1972 British works. Michael Head is best known for his songs. The surface of that heritage has hardly been scratched as yet. We certainly need a Michel Head Edition comparable to the work done by Hyperion for Schubert – and then they can do the same for C.W. Orr. Head was absorbed by the British song of which he wrote hundreds. He made the occasional foray into intimate chamber music. There are three pieces for oboe and piano as well as the trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. For Lady Barbirolli and Valda Aveling he wrote this Siciliana. This is an aristocratic piece where beauty drops in honeyed slowness and where the music coasts close to cinematic sentimentality (Nino Rota). Head makes cleverly affecting use of the guitar sonority of the harpsichord in the work’s final bars. Dodgson is a product of the RCM rather than Head's RAM. His wife is Jane Clark the harpsichordist. Dodgson's instrument is the French Horn rather than the oboe. His little four–movement suite was again written for the Barbirolli–Aveling Duo. The guitar and the neo–classical world of Rodrigo can be heard in the Prelude. This is followed by the blithe but slightly astringent Ground. The Canzonet is drawn magnetically to English lyrical voices like Finzi and Howells but, with Dodgson, there is that last reserve which somehow magnifies the effect. A skipping Dance recalls the finale of Malcolm Arnold's gorgeous first Oboe Concerto.

"Maconchy had something of a mission with the oboe. There's the 1932 Oboe Quintet which was a prize–winner in the Daily Telegraph chamber music competition of that year. This was recorded on 78s by Helen Gaskell and has recently been reissued on Dutton (see review). It is heard on Oboe Classics CC2009 'An English Renaissance' (see review). The Oboe Quartet dating from circa 1972 is on the Oboe Classics collection of Janet Craxton radio recordings on CC2011 (see review).

"These little Bagatelles were again composed specifically for the Barbirolli/Aveling Duo and for the same Purcell Room concert where all three were premiered in October 1972. They are not avant–garde in the sense that Elizabeth Lutyens' Driving Out the Death is; to be heard on that indispensable Janet Craxton collection with other oboe chamber works by Berkeley, Stoker, Routh and Maconchy CC2011. These are bagatelles only in the sense that they are short: between two minutes and three minutes twenty five seconds. The first is deliberate and pugnacious, the second probing, chilly–dank and even Gothic though it relaxes for a melancholy reveille at 1:07 and the final panel is an angular hop–skipping dance. The idiom has more to do with Bartók than her teacher Vaughan Williams. This strong sense of self–identity was apparent from the 1932 Oboe Quintet onwards and across her great cycle of string quartets (now on Regis).

"The 1972 works, quite naturally, carry the mark of passing time and reflect trace elements of the avant–gardiste 1960s and 1970s. Gordon Jacob's lovely 1963 work shows no such inclination. It too was written for the Barbirolli–Aveling Duo. His Sonatina carols the English muse. It was written at the end of a sustained high noon for his works from the 1920s to the end of the 1950s. The 1960s pushed his name off broadcast schedules and concert programmes. He simply adapted and shifted his production to writing music for amateurs, children and students. His long list of works include two concertos for oboe and strings the first of which was written for Lady Barbirolli. There are also Seven Bagatelles, Ten Little Studies and a Rhapsody for cor anglais and strings. The adagio of the Sonatina sings of sun–soaked summers and yellow corn fields, the heat–haze and the buzzing of insects. The allegro giocoso dances lightly on its toes. Its swoops and dives again recall Malcolm Arnold's First Oboe Concerto. The lento alla sarabanda reminded me strongly of Thomas Wilson's affecting music for the BBC Scotland TV’s Lewis Grassic Gibbon adaptation: Cloud Howe – nursing the desolate and the lonely. The final allegro molto vivace is a romp for both players which at 00.40 relaxes into another of those dazzling summer pasture songs before finding its feet for that music–hall romp of a home–run. The piece ends with a modest throwaway gesture that is both touching and lyrically effective.

"The notes are typically full and are written from the inside by Ifeka and May.

"No enthusiast of the oboe can afford to be without this collection. This is music–making of the highest order."

Rob Barnett, www.musicweb–, November 2007

"From Leipzig to London"

Oboe Classics CC2013

"I must confess that I intended to concentrate on the ‘modern’ works on this CD. Do not get me wrong – I love the music of J.S. Bach – but, if I am honest I feel more at home with the masters of the English Renaissance. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who had already bought this CD. She was adamant that I approach the works as presented and enjoy the impression of the ‘journey.’ For her, if anything the Bach would have had the edge from a composer’s point of view, but she insisted that this was, to use a ’sixties term, rather like Sergeant Pepper – a concept album. It is important to listen to this CD in sequence: the eighteenth century pieces most certainly balance and contrast with the modern. This is best exemplified between the Elizabeth Maconchy Bagatelles and the following Bach Sonata in G minor. The effect is stunning.

"The raison d’être of this CD is to showcase the oboe within the context of the swing of its history. It is no great secret that the oboe had a somewhat chequered career over the years. Everyone knows the great concertos and sonatas that were written in the eighteenth century by the likes of Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann. The instrument was often used by the Bach tribe and J.S.B. in particular. Yet in the nineteenth century the oboe and its relations were relegated to the orchestra pit. It was not until the twentieth century that composers and performers rediscovered the charm and agility of this instrument. We need only think of Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto as epitomising its sound–world – certainly in Great Britain.

"Janet Craxton and Leon Goossens encouraged composers to write new works for their instrument. Yet oboe enthusiasts also owe a huge debt to Evelyn Rothwell who did so much to raise awareness of the instrument and its repertoire. Rothwell, when playing baroque pieces was typically accompanied on the harpsichord by Valda Aveling. This led to a number of twentieth century British composers being commissioned to write works for the duo.

"The touchstone for the present programme is the three Bach pieces – one each for oboe, cor anglais and oboe d’amore. It is not necessary to give an analysis of these works here – save to point out that there are questions of authorship over BWV 1027 and 1028. Yet the beauty and vitality of these works render authenticity almost, but not quite, irrelevant. These are well played and often quite moving.

"To my ear the most successful piece – apart from J.S.B. of course, is the Sonatina for Oboe and Harpsichord (1963) by Gordon Jacob. For far too long Jacob’s music has been largely ignored, yet recently we have been presented with his two symphonies, and a number of chamber works. Older listeners will recall Iris Loveridge’s Lyrita recording of his Piano Sonata. There is no doubt that he was an accomplished composer who was pretty well consistent in producing works of quality, invention and downright musical interest.

"In many ways the present work epitomises Jacob’s art. This work cannot be seen as pastiche, neither can it be regarded as a neo–baroque exercise designed to complement works by Telemann et al. Nor is this an academic exercise. The Sonatina is a work that is wholly in the 20th century yet has a timelessness that is rare in works from any era or from even the greatest of composers. In this work we find sadness, fun, introspection and the opposites. This is not a simple piece; in fact it is quite involved and uses a fairly chromatic language, yet there is nothing difficult here. It is the piece I most wanted to hear: I am not disappointed.

"I am normally a great enthusiast of Elizabeth Maconchy’s music, however I cannot honestly state that I was moved by these Three Bagatelles. Of course they are beautifully constructed and full of interest and vitality and are surely grateful to the players. However, I cannot imagine a piece further removed from the ethos of her teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Yet I guess that they are an important contribution to the literature of the oboe and as such it is good that they receive what I imagine is their first recorded performance.

"Stephen Dodgson’s Suite in D (1972) is quite definitely derivative – but in an attractive and fascinating way. It could be argued that the work is pastiche – with the suite’s movements being given ‘typical’ titles like Prelude and Ground. Yet it is this tension between old and new that makes it a satisfactory work. Quite obviously Dodgson has absorbed the techniques and mannerisms of the Baroque composers without losing his distinctive voice which perhaps owes more to Stravinsky than to Vivaldi!

"Perhaps the most satisfying piece for me is the Siciliana by Michael Head. Of course most of Head’s compositions were for voice and piano, but a few instrumental pieces–including three for oboe and piano – have survived. Interestingly, he also wrote a piano concerto! The present work is extremely short, but quite exquisite. Of course, it is an Italian dance, but the music is entirely English. Preconceptions and musical conditioning will bring to mind an England far removed from today – yet it did not exist in Head’s day either. In fact this piece is timeless and placeless. Perfect – but I would that it were longer!

"The documentation for this CD is seriously impressive. So many recording companies supply minimalist background for their products. However, Jeremy Polmear at Oboe Classics provides, what in my opinion are, near perfect programme notes. This is a 24–page booklet that includes an impressive 3500 word essay – given in English and in German. These notes are written by the performers and are erudite, entertaining and useful. The quality of the sound is perfect for this kind of music. I could just shut my eyes and imagine that this was being presented ‘live’ in my music room.

"I will be honest and admit that I have not heard of Althea Ifeka and Katherine May before hearing this recording: the Arkiv catalogue does not show any other recordings by this duo. Yet reading their brief biographies reveals two performers who are active in the recital and teaching world. It is surely only a matter of time before they record more music for the oboe and harpsichord…

"I usually suggest that when a number of works are presented on a disc like this listeners pick one or two pieces at a time and listen carefully. Now, for once I suggest a good old–fashioned through–listen. And then of course you can pick out your favourites. However by all means pause momentarily between works and read the programme notes. You will learn an amazing amount!"

John France, www.musicweb–, November 2007