Music by Mozart, Britten, Knussen and Françaix
Nicholas Daniel ob, Britten Oboe Quartet
Harmonia Mundi HMM907672

Since winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1980, English oboist Nicholas Daniel has built a career establishing him as one of the world’s leading soloists, alongside his work as a conductor and founder of the Britten Sinfonia.

He has also amassed an impressive discography of 25 or so recordings, many of them featuring new works he has commissioned. But like many top-flight musicians he wouldn’t be where he is today without a mentor to inspire him, and so his latest album A Tribute To Janet – which also marks the recording debut of his Britten Oboe Quartet – is dedicated to his “beloved” teacher Janet Craxton, for many years principal oboist of the Hallé and founder of the London Oboe Quartet. Craxton, who died in 1981, premiered several works and two of her commissions – Oliver Knussen’s Cantata Op. 15 and Jean Francaix’s Quartet for Cor Anglais and Strings – are included in the collection.

Although this is the first we have heard of the Britten Oboe Quartet, they have been performing these core works together for several years. The strings of violinist Jacqueline Shave, violist Clare Finnimore and cellist Caroline Dearnley complement Daniel’s faultless technique and beautiful tessitura handsomely. This is apparent from the opening piece, Mozart’s heavenly Oboe Quartet, with its gorgeous short slow movement.

Daniel has completed Mozart’s fragment, Adagio for English Horn, employing it to act as a musical postscript to the Quartet, and he has kept the lilting aria-like tune simple and unadorned. The tight ensemble work of the BOQ is nowhere more apparent than in Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy, Op. 2, an early work of enormous melodic charm.

One of the most intriguing tracks is Knussen’s Cantata, a complex and satisfying 10 minutes in which every instrumentalist needs to dig deep, from the restless wildly leaping middle section where the oboe takes giddy flight over rhythmically eccentric pizzicato through to the gently rocking ending. Daniel says in his notes that this is the work the quartet have spent most time on getting right, and it bears repeated listening to find new surprises.

The Françaix Quartet is typically charming, veering from comic allegros worthy of a Jacques Tati film to serene slower movements, making a refreshing change of mood after the Knussen. If you download this lovely homage you will get the bonus of Colin Matthews’ quietly radiant arrangement of Robert Schumann’s song Mondnacht.