Oboist Christopher Redgate pulled a number of facts out of the bag in his pre-concert conversation with composer Michael Finnissy. The performance would see the newest oboe (the Howarth-Redgate model) played in Europe’s oldest concert hall (Oxford’s Holywell Music Room). Redgate would also be playing the lupophon (one of only four active), and the performance of Finnissy’s piece Âwâz-e Niyâz would only be its second complete outing.

Christopher Redgate and the new oboe © Colin Still
Christopher Redgate and the new oboe
© Colin Still

The “Virtuoso Oboe” of the programme’s title could just as easily have been referring to Christopher Redgate as the material which he was playing. The pre-concert talk revealed a fair amount of the audience to be oboists, and they were not to be disappointed. Besides Redgate’s impressive playing, his introductions to the pieces were full of oboe-related trivia and enthusiasm. This helped to create a warm atmosphere for the evening, despite the scattering of television cameras. The audience were put at ease and were clearly hanging onto Redgate’s every word.

Michael Finnissy’s Âwâz-e Niyâz opened the programme, with the composer playing piano. The piece saw Redgate alternate oboe and (the rather formidable) lupophon, making use of extended performance techniques including multiphonics and quarter-tones. It was inspired by Persian traditions, and began, rather appropriately, with Oriental fragments spun into a melodic line. The piano and lupophon dialogue built up a contrapuntal web around these ideas, both instruments interacting in the same low register. Although the very depths of the lupophon’s range occasionally failed to sound, its top notes were more secure. The strength of the oboe’s top register was also revealed (an asset of the Howarth-Redgate model). Redgate’s intimate knowledge of the instrument was evident in his navigation of angular lines. The Nocturne section of the piece saw Redgate ornament the lyricism of Finnissy’s piano with microtones and trills. Finnissy’s thunderous piano glissandi (which required him to don gloves) prompted indignant flutter-tongue responses from the oboe, and the piece ended with the last glissando gradually fading into silence. The overall mood was one of contemplation – fitting for a piece whose title can be translated as “Songs from Mysterious Necessity”.

The second half of the concert moved backwards in time into the 19th century. Josef Triebensee’s Thema und Variationen saw Redgate joined by the two other members of Abbey Oboes. The eight variations are characterised by a sense of playfulness (despite their increasing complexity). The trio’s articulation was well-matched, but it was the jaunty character lent by Redgate which really brought the piece to life.

Antonio Pasculli’s Le Api (“The Bees”) was next on the programme. This piece exceeds the technical requirements of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee by far, demanding circular breathing and frenetic finger-work. Although Redgate may have been slightly drowned out by Finnissy’s piano at times, his performance was dazzling and he retained a cool sense of poise despite Pasculli’s red-hot passagework. The oboists in the room watched with delighted awe, and rightfully so.

Beethoven’s Trio in C, Op. 87 saw Redgate reunited with the Abbey Oboes. This four-movement work was among the first written for two oboes and cor anglais. Although the players blended well in the Allegro first movement, the cor anglais needed more weight at cadence points. The players brought intensity to the Adagio to great effect, before returning to a lighter sound for the rollicking Scherzo. Redgate’s glittering arpeggios lent the jolly Presto finale momentum, bringing the work to a close.

The enthusiasm of the audience prompted another feat of virtuosity from Redgate in the form of a Pasculli encore. The combination of his playing and Finnissy’s exquisite composition made this a very memorable evening indeed.