The Handel Institute

Issue 4, Part Two: February/March 2002

Interview with Anthony Robson (Oboist, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment)

Introduction: Anthony Robson  (“AR”) is principal oboist for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), and has also worked with Collegium Musicum 90, The English Baroque Soloists, and most well known English period instrument orchestras. His experience of playing and recording Handel is vast. He spoke to David Vickers (“DV”) after rehearsing for William Christie’s recent London performance of Rodelinda on 11 February 2002. This performance was the inauguration of the South Bank’s lavish concert series “Discovering Handel”, featuring performances of under the direction of Christie, Nicholas McGegan, Rinaldo Alessandrini, Paul McCreesh, Trevor Pinnock, and René Jacobs.

DV: How did you start playing baroque oboe?

AR: I started playing the oboe when I was about 10, and I’ve always really rather liked baroque music. Strangely, one of my very first encounters with classical music at all was a wonderful old record of Handel’s Water Music, which I absolutely adored.

DV: By who?

AR: It was by an organisation called The Westminster Baroque Sinfonia, conducted by John Bartlett. Strangely, it also contained a version of the Minuet from Rodelinda that we’re playing today, and the Sinfonia from Acis and Galatea with an adapted ending - not going into the opera, but finished as a concert piece. It's very useful. I think we’re probably going to use that as a future encore piece - change two notes in the bass at the end and you get a very nice little encore. So I’ve always known the music of Handel right from when I first ever heard music at all. The best tune in the world was always [hums horn tune from Water Music]. I took up the oboe - obviously - because I loved the sound of the instrument. The modern instrument, that is. But it wasn’t until I left the Royal Academy of Music, or at least the very end of my days there, that I considered playing the baroque instrument, which was a bit stupid really because I had studied recorder all the way through my time there. It doesn’t really take too much of a step for a modern oboe player who plays the recorder to change over to baroque oboe. Basically, I just loved the sound of the oboe - and still do despite the things it has done to me over the years - so I took it from there. And then found myself very rapidly in demand.

 DV: Do you think there’s quite a bit of variety in the tones of baroque oboists from different countries and orchestras? I’m thinking of things like Alan Curtis’ work in the late 1970s that had a very fruity sound, compared to some of the lighter or more polite styles of baroque oboe playing.

 AR: Well the thing is that every oboeplayer sounds different anyway. If you’ve got a keen ear, you can tell the difference between David Reichenberg and Marcel Ponseele, or any of the foreign players. You can often spot that. There are still certain national styles of oboe playing that are still just about recognisable in different countries. For example you can spot a mile off that the baroque oboe playing of Vienna’s Concentus Musicus (Concentus Musicus Wien) is definitely “Viennese” in style even though they’re playing on old instruments. Its still got that sort of Viennese twang, which you still get from the modern Viennese oboists - it's to do with how they make their reeds and the thinness of the gauge they use, and the lightness of approach. You can still hear that. You can definitely hear American influences in baroque oboe playing by the fact that they make their reeds quite heavy and they make them in a style which perhaps sometimes isn’t what I would call authentic.

 DV: Is any of that to do with David Reichenberg?

 AR: No, because David was pure Viennese trained! He studied with Schaeftlein at the Concentus Musicus, and was very Viennese, although he did make a much what I would call warmer, perhaps more acceptable sound, than some of the Viennese players would have done.

 DV: What do you think of the suggestion that the sound of baroque oboes is actually rather more like trumpets in some respects? Is that because the oboes were stronger in those days or because the trumpets were perhaps a little bit more delicate?

 AR: I think it is probably a combination of both of those, but the marvellous thing about the oboe is the contemporary accounts. I think it is one of the Tutors for the Oboe, one by Bannister published in England in or around 1695, that says something like “with a good reed it will make a sound not inferior to the trumpet, but a good reed will also blow as soft and easily as a flute” - flute meaning a recorder in those days. It just is capable of an extremely large dynamic range, especially if you try a bit.

DV: You don’t often hear that from some baroque bands, whose oboe sound is very even.

AR: Yes, I’m afraid that’s not really my idea of playing the oboe at all.

DV: But are you told that by some conductors from time to time?

AR: Yes! But you have to be capable of it, and I’d like to think that I am. But I’m also capable of playing louder than anybody else on the stage because sometimes you have to. If you have an aria like that wonderful one in Amadigi which has a trumpet and oboe obligato ["Desterò dall'empia dite"] with a rather mad sorceress, you have to match these people.

DV: Have you ever played in a staging of Amadigi?

AR: Not a staging no, but I recorded it a donkey’s years ago with Norrington when I first started off. We did the whole piece for the BBC. It was lovely actually.

DV: It’s not common knowledge that there’s a tape of Amadigi by Roger Norrington floating around somewhere.

AR: It’s not commonly known, but it's somewhere in the BBC archives. I seem to remember we had a very good set of singers.

DV: It’s a very good opera. I personally tend to think that it's Handel’s best London opera before Giulio Cesare.

AR: Yes, it is quite possibly. Even more than Rinaldo?

DV: I think it’s a more cohesive piece of theatre than Rinaldo. I wouldn’t say the score of Amadigi is more spectacular though!

AR: No, because Rinaldo does take a bit of beating…

DV: Absolutely, but maybe dramatically Amadigi is a more carefully worked out piece.

AR: But of course in Amadigi there is “Pena tiranna” - the one most people know. I had the pleasure of doing that with Kiri te Kanawa on the television years ago.

DV: Of course you must have played in many Handel stagings over the years. Which ones stand out?

AR: I’ve done a fair few. Oh gosh, oh blimey… Well of course so many of them I never get the chance to see because I’m stuck down a pit somewhere and unable to see. Many good things though: Agrippina with the Kent Opera, with the most amazing title role sung by Felicity Palmer, who gave it wonderful characterisation. A few numbers were transposed down slightly because she was already going more mezzo by then, but it was the most fantastic singing and it was a marvellous production. Also bad ones of the same opera in Germany here and there, with the bad old habit of the castrato parts transposed down for baritone - bad habits die hard. But some wonderful productions. Let me say, one of the most amazing productions I ever did was in the round in Spitalfields, of Alcina with Richard Hickox and Arleen Auger. It was completely phenomenal. Auger sang her socks off, and we in the orchestra were completely captivated, though not just by Auger - it was the most amazing cast. Della Jones singing the most wonderful divisions you’ve ever heard.

DV: The recording made of that production still stands up very well.

AR: Yes, it does, and I’m surprised to hear a later one done recently by Bill [Christie] that doesn’t do any better.

DV: The interesting thing about that production of Alcina you played in was that Hickox used some fairly slow or moderate tempos. Normally one would want something a little bit more energetic or dynamic, but even at those slightly relaxed tempos the orchestra just gave it everything they had got.

AR: You can get away with more using baroque instruments. What you say about Hickox is his use of slightly more of what you might call traditional tempi, but this doesn’t bother me so much because in the end I’m not all that convinced that some of the tempi we adopt now are all that correct. If you want to start opening a terrible can of worms, I think the easiest thing to do is to throw the baby away with the bath water. We do have a certain amount of tradition of performing Handel in this country. Yes, perhaps the operas haven’t been performed, but arias and orchestral works have always been performed consistently non-stop since the death of this person. Although things probably do creep in, you can’t literally throw 250 years or so of performing tradition away and say that it must be not valid anymore. We’re still human beings, we still have the same emotions, we still experience the same emotions that the man wrote about. When he wrote an aria like “Ah mio cor” in Alcina, you understand entirely where he’s coming from, and there are only a certain amount of things you can do with that. So it doesn’t worry me if a tempo has to be slow. I mean, Bill Christie - who we’re working with at the moment in Rodelinda - occasionally adopts what might be called traditional tempi, i.e. a little slower than some of the purists may like to have nowadays. But it works because it is completely valid in the musical and dramatic situation.

DV: I think it’s a debatable points whether the “Purists” are actually all that pure. Of course we’ll never know what really happened, but often if you look at Handel’s own tempo markings it's perfectly clear exactly how this music should be phrased and how it functions. You look at the ritornello, you look at the voice part, and you look at the bass part, and you know what kind of things you are supposed to lean on or bring out in performance.

AR: You can almost work out what the text is going to be.

DV: Its funny how a lot of people who use period instruments tend to ignore a lot of that, just as much as the Beechams and Sargeants of yesteryear did…

AR: In the same way…

DV: Yes, both extremes are just as misleading historically.

AR: Let’s fact it, Handel was one of the first people to argue for the moderate way, along with Charles Jennens!

DV: You were also involved with Oreste at the Linbury Theatre

AR: Yes, that was what you would call a more “authentic” type staging, as much as one can know. It was sort of nodding towards authenticity. The Alcina in the round didn’t nod toward authenticity in the least, but it was just completely wonderful: it was an imaginative way of evoking this enchanted island and I can’t imagine it ever being done better. There was sand on the floor, lots of antiques littered about, little cameo grottoes of this and that, and very imaginative use of areas of the building. For example when Arleen sang “Ah Ruggiero crudel!” from up on the top of the gantry, right up at the top of the church, she looked out trying to cast spells. “Ombre pallide” is the most amazing aria anyway, but Alcina is the most amazing opera. There isn’t a single superfluous aria, there’s not one where I would think “of well, perhaps we can move on to something better now”. Although I did have a terrible shock a few years ago: I was teaching at the Royal Academy of Music by then, and I was looking through some Telemann cantatas and came across about 12 themes from Alcina. I was absolutely horrified because I always knew Handel was a great borrower, but it was so really blatant it was not true! Mind you, having said that, it doesn’t worry me in the slightest.

 DV: Do you think it always works in its own context?

AR: Absolutely. As somebody said, he takes other men’s rough stones and turns them into polished pebbles, or something like that.

 DV: Sometimes it's possible to argue that maybe he just takes a little bit of another man’s stone and then builds a whole new wall from it.

AR: I remember being in a very excited state and ringing up somebody like Winton Dean, and saying “you don’t know me, but I’m an oboe player and I’ve just come across these borrowings”, and he said “Oh yes, we’ve known about those for years”. But it was a shock for me.

 DV: What about recordings you’ve been involved with? Have you ever recorded the oboe sonatas?

AR: I haven’t - I’ve never been asked! Bit of a shame really. There is the odd recording already of course. I used to have a very good old one with Bruce Haynes, playing a Stainsby instrument from the Bate Collection up at Oxford, from about 1740.

 DV: Do you know the L’Ecole d’Orphee series of recordings?

AR: Yes, I think that was David Reichenberg, wasn’t it? I remember he was very pleased with those, he told me the sessions had gone particularly well. He’d had a particularly nice reed, and it had been a good day.

DV: A lot depends on the reed you’re using on the day?

AR: A lot? 97% of playing any oboe depends on your reed.

DV: So you could sometimes be unlucky?

AR: Well, you try not to be unlucky - you make a lot of reeds. Sometimes you might not have a good one, but you do try to make sure that you do have a good one. While I was in Paris last week I tried about 20 different baroque oboe reeds on in the hope of finding the right one to last me for the Handel extravaganza.

DV: How long do they tend to last?

AR: It depends what you’re doing. If you’re doing Rodelinda then they last for quite a long time because we’re only in about a dozen numbers. But if you were to play something like the Music for the Royal Fireworks every night for a week you’d be lucky for it to last 4 or 5 days.

DV: Are you playing the Galliard [?] solo in “Vivi tiranno” tonight?

AR: We’re doing it with 4 players because we can’t be sure how it was done, but we’re taking it at a tempo that is virtually unplayable because Mr. Scholl has the voice that matches it. It’s completely wonderful, but I wonder if it is the sort of tempo that Handel’s players could have done. It does go literally off like a bat out of hell. Handel didn’t write it at the sort of Prestissimo tempo we are taking it. There’s evidence he may have played the oboe in his youth anyway, and he certainly knew an awful lot about the oboe.

DV: He is reported to have said “I used to write like the Devil” for oboe…

 AR: It is quite possible that if Handel meant it to be that fast he would have probably put the solo on the fiddles part, and because all the performing materials for these operas is lost we’ll never actually know what they did. You can have a conducting score which survives and we work from that, but unless you’ve got what the players actually had in front of them, you don’t know what kinds of decisions were made in performance.

DV: So you’ve not yet recorded the sonatas, but what about operas?

AR: Strangely, I haven’t really taken part in that many recordings of Handel operas. I’ve done Agrippina with John Eliot Gardiner - that’s another one that has a wicked violinistic oboe solo in the overture. I don’t believe it is necessarily for oboe. It says it in the score, but whether it was actually played by the oboe is another thing entirely. I sweated blood over that.

DV: It’s a fine overture, and it sounds terrific.

AR: It is very tricky to play! I’ve done Rodelinda with the Raglan Baroque Players, and that was perhaps closer to what it would have been like in the 18th century than tonight’s performance.

DV: You’ve told me that Handel’s oratorios are you favourite aspect of his work.

AR: I think they are, yes. Perhaps because I understand what’s going on more! There are so many wonderful pieces. They don’t come better than things like Jephtha, do they?

DV: Jephtha more so than Theodora?

AR: Oh, I adore Theodora. I’m not sure whether it should be staged like we have done recently, but it certainly worked. There were lots of subplots that weren’t supposed to be there, but it did work wonderfully when we did it at Glyndebourne. But Jephtha is my favourite, although I’m not sure why.

DV: Is it because of Act III?

AR: It's got great momentum all the way through actually, all the going off the battle stuff in Act I and then coming back in Act II and finding himself in this absolutely impossible situation.

DV: And then there is that awesome opening to Act III! Paul Traver, the conductor of the Maryland Handel Festival, recently became the first person since Handel to conduct all the dramatic oratorios in chronological sequence. At the beginning of the last interval, only one act away from completing this awesome achievement, he turned to the audience and said “Don’t be back in your seats late, or you’ll miss the greatest beginning of an Act III ever composed!”

AR: It could be the greatest Act in his whole output, not least to have all those wonderful arias one after the other. If you can get the right singers, it can be completely heartbreaking. I’ve sat on stage in past years, listening to people like Lynne Dawson singing Iphis’ “Brighter scenes I seek above” and it becomes difficult to sit there with tears rolling down your face in front of the audience. The greatness of Handel the composer, Handel the man, and Handel the human being, to be able to convey those emotions, although he could never conceive of being in that sort of situation himself being an old unmarried man without children.

DV: It's amazing how many great Fatherly characters there are in the oratorios. Gobrias in Belshazzar…

AR: and Manoah in Samson of course, or “Manure” as a good singing friend of mine who has sung the role many times calls it. There is wonderful tenderness in many of these characters.

DV: Like with the operas, many of the best oratorios are much more dissimilar than a first glance reveals. There is a fantastic variety beneath what seems like the superficial unity of the oratorio genre. If you pick the best 5 or 6, no two of them are really alike.

AR: No, not at all! Of course he’s limited by what he’s got to do with text, and obviously some texts bring out much greater things in him than other texts - which is natural for any composer.

DV: Are you thinking of Jennens’ texts over things like Joseph and his Brethren?

AR: Well. Joseph is a funny old piece anyway, at the best of times. Yet I believe it was fairly popular in Handel’s own time. There were certainly quite a few oratorios more popular then than they are now. I played in Joseph at the London Handel Festival a few years ago, but I don’t really remember much about it now other than an extraordinarily named character Zaphnaph! It has got a very nice E minor overture.

DV: It has also got a terrific Prison scene for the tenor Simeon, who is lamenting his role in the murder of his brother Joseph all those years ago…

AR: Yes, I remember that now. It’s not going to be one of the all time popular oratorios, but it has some good things in it. I did quite a few performances of Deborah some years ago - a strange old piece in some ways. We did it for the BBC with Andrew Parrott, and I also played on Robert King’s recording more recently. The most memorable bits of Deborah are the bits stolen from the Brockes Passion - there is a lovely oboe solo that makes a lot of sense in the Brockes Passion, but doesn’t make any sense at all in Deborah! The Brockes Passion is an underrated work. It should be done much more. One if often coloured far too much by what Bach has done with his settings of the Passion story, much to the detriment of his contemporaries.

DV: Are you looking forward to doing Jephtha with René Jacobs?

AR: Yes, I am looking forward to it. René sometimes does things in a little bit of an un-English fashion, which I don’t always enjoy. As I said earlier, we have got a certain amount of performing tradition - some of these popular oratorios have never been out of the repertoire - which we shouldn’t throw away all together. René sometimes is perhaps a little too continental for my taste, but he’ll have to try very hard for me not to enjoy Jephtha! René is a great musician, and he is wonderful for the singers. But I think there are important elements of these oratorios that have quintessential Englishness, if one can say that about Handel - and I think one probably can, in the respect that he did live here for most of his life.

DV: By the time he wrote Jephtha Handel had been writing nothing other than English music for over 20 years…

AR: And who else but an English composer could write L’Allegro? There’s no question that somebody steeped in completely English ways couldn’t write that wonderful English pastoral vein of music, and really capture the essence of the Purcellian atmosphere about it. He couldn’t have captured it had he not been thoroughly anglicised. It’s totally wonderful - in L’Allegro he has just captured the English completely, in all of their aspects.

DV: Right from manic depression right through the raucous laughter!

AR: Absolutely! He’s aided by a good text. I’m rather fond of Alexander’s Feast. My favourite moment in Alexander’s Feast is the famous bassoons and oboes orchestration of “Behold a ghastly band” [in “Revenge Timotheus cries”] - I’m sure Handel had a sense of humour and deliberately wrote the accompaniment for these Cinderella instruments, violas and bassoons, setting them against the text “Behold a ghastly band”, the word “band” meaning orchestra in the 18th century.

DV: I’ve never noticed that before! Of course its also a very effective supernatural moment too…

AR: Yes, but I think there is a slight tongue in cheek to it as well. He couldn’t have been oblivious to that little joke, I think. We know he had a very lively sense of humour. Didn’t somebody like Burney say he told marvellous jokes but you had to speak 3 or 4 languages fluently in order to follow the thread?

DV: And also that he swore in those languages too, which is somewhat at odds with the Protestant Icon image that some people still have of him.

AR: I don’t believe all that. I think he was far too great a human being not to have a sense of humour.

DV: And of course it is not impossible for somebody to have sincere religious feelings and also possess a sense of humour!

AR: Of course not.

DV: There’s a lot of humour in Handel’s music for Acis and Galatea too, which you must have played quite a few times.

AR: Yes, many times. Usually doing all the recorder parts as well, which are good fun to play. Of course it was conceived for one player, Kytch, a great oboe player of the time who used to go up to Cannons to play for Pepusch. I’ve often done Acis with single strings, one singer per part in the choruses, and three tenors - using an extra tenor to sing the role of Coridon, who has “Would you gain the tender creature” in F major in the original Cannons version.

DV: You’re particularly looking forward to playing in the OAE Handel Series.

AR: Yes, how could I not? A series of concerts devoted to my all time favourite composer. I’m particularly looking forward to doing some of the Concerti per due cori which are done nowhere near enough in concerts. They’re very well arranged by Handel, adapting his own music for horns and windband with orchestra.

DV: And that’s going to be with Nicholas McGegan?

AR: Yes. He’s got a real feeling for Handel. He’s one of these that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. He’s got such a sense of “joie de vivre”, he picks up the humour in the music, has great control, etc.

DV: And you will also be doing the “Gloria”?

AR: The much disputed Gloria! Which actually I don’t have a problem with at all. The first time I heard it I noticed a bit of the Opus 1 sonatas, and thought “well, that’s that”. There could be elements of other people’s music mixed up with it, so the issue of authorship can be tricky, but - as with more familiar later Handel music - it doesn’t matter a damn.

DV: You’re going to be performing Il Trionfo del Tempo with Rinaldo Alessandrini?

AR: I’ve never worked for him, and I don’t know much about him. I don’t think any of us at the OAE know anything about him. So we’ll look forward to that. I have played in some later versions of The Triumph of Time and Truth, the 1737 and 1757 versions at the London Handel Festival, although I’ve never played this early Italian version. I’m told that there is a huge oboe part that I’m going to have to look at.

DV: Do you have any unfulfilled Handel ambitions?

AR: I don’t know really. I think everybody’s almost done everything now, and I’ve been involved in an awful lot of it. There’s always another oratorio, another opera, that you haven’t played. But somewhere amongst those operas you haven’t played there are always 3 or 3, or even half a dozen completely cracking arias.

DV: There are some operas, such as Sosarme,  Ezio and Tolomeo, that are better than existing recordings suggest. But the question is who has got the money to do them again?

AR: Who’s got the money, and who’s got the inclination? This is the problem. The recording industry is in such a ridiculous state at the moment. I fear we may never really get around to doing some of these pieces as well as they deserve, which is a terrible shame. The big record companies feel that they are there to make an awful lot of money. They are just not prepared to put the amount of money they used to do back into other things like what I would call “life enhancing music” as opposed to most of the rubbish which we know makes money.

DV: That goes for within the classical industry as well?

AR: Absolutely! I think these wretched people - if they’re out there listening - have a duty to enable people - to enable society - to grow artistically, giving us the ways and means to educate people and enrich their lives. At the moment they’re not doing this, and I think that's the way society is going because of that - what we’re teaching our children and what we’re not teaching our children, the sort of people we’re turning out with a complete lack of understanding and lack of the arts both in education and right the way across the board - will mean that somewhere along the line we’re going to be very sorry for it. There will be some people who will have had key responsibility for it, and I think the recording companies should look to themselves.

Relevant Links:

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE): 

Collegium Musicum 90, at Chandos Records.

The English Baroque Soloists:

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