Listen: Herbert Howells’ Oboe Sonata

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Special treats.

I was first introduced to Herbert Howells oboe sonata last Saturday afternoon in the Southbank Centre.

It was the perfect introduction. Unassuming. Throwaway. Blink and you’d have missed it.

“The Herbert Howells is amazing,” said Jess. That was the moment I was hooked in.

There was something in the way Jess talked about the work – an unequivocal enthusiasm – that made me want to listen to it as soon as I got home.

That’s what I’m most attuned to at the moment. When people mention works or composers in such a way that I’m taken by surprise. I don’t need to gasp or articulate that surprise. It’s more subtle than that. It’s more like someone flicking a switch and a beam of light cutting through the darkness. It demands attention. It promises everything.

Herbert Howells’ sonata doesn’t disappoint. It’s complex. An epic tale. A tussle between two characters. Once they’ve first reconciled their differences, then they become unified. After that they embark on a journey in the outside world, only to discover that together they face something far darker than what they thought they were confronting in the first place.

I’m not entirely sure whether that’s what the composer actually intended. To a certain extent I don’t really care.

Especially compelling is the sense of resolution – tentative and fragile – at the end of the second movement. If we’re talking in Dahl-esque short story terms, then the composer could have easily brought the work to the end of the second movement. Leave us hanging Herbert. Leave us wondering what happens next. But instead, we do hear what happens next, and what we discover is that there isn’t a sense of triumph over evil. No. That would be a little simplistic. The real world is, accordingly to Herbert Howells, a little bleak.

That third movement is the daring pivot point. From this point on, instead of chasing and reacting to the piano, the oboe takes the lead. From the third movement on, it’s the piano that chases the musical material. Power reassigned.

But it’s a pyrrhic victory for the oboe. The epilogue is bleak.

Instead there’s a sense of resolve: however grim the world actually is, at least both oboe and piano have each other’s backs.


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