Better Angels

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Barber,Blackford,Janacek,R Strauss
LABELS: Champs Hill Records
ALBUM TITLE: Better Angels
WORKS: Blackford: The Better Angels of Our Nature; Barber: Canzonetta; Summer Music; Janácek: Mládi (Youth); R Strauss: Oboe Concerto
PERFORMER: Emily Pailthorpe (oboe); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins


The American-born, British-based oboist Emily Pailthorpe plays Richard Strauss’s Indian-summer Concerto with relaxed virtuosity, pleasing tone and a wide range of dynamics. The ornate first movement flows well, with occasional hurried moments; the slow movement feels strangely passive; the Vivace is spirited; the coda conforms to accumulated tradition, beginning at a leisurely Allegro and almost coming to a halt before a hectic ending at a fictitious Tempo primo. Martyn Brabbins nurtures the orchestra’s proliferating counter-melodies, and the recording renders them all clearly, though without ever making the BBC SO sound like the ‘small orchestra’ Strauss specified. 

Samuel Barber’s last work, the Canzonetta for oboe and strings originally intended as the middle movement of a concerto, emerges as a persuasively lyrical statement. Richard Blackford’s 2013 The Better Angels of our Nature, also with strings, was inspired by a plea for reconciliation in Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. At its mid-point, the oboe sounds the funeral bugle-call ‘Taps’, followed by a beautifully compassionate string episode; though after that, the closing stretch seems slightly cool. 

Oddly, the programme is completed not by another concerto but by wind chamber music, played by Pailthorpe with principals of the BBC SO, and recorded in vivid close-up. Barber’s quintet Summer Music, a patchwork quilt of seasonal mood-pictures, is performed with fluent continuity and meticulous characterisation. Janácek’s sextet Mládí, inspired by memories of the composer’s youth as a choirboy, is given just the right mix of swagger and tenderness.


Anthony Burton