The first of the oboe pieces is—despite its youthfulness of expression—perhaps the most important: the consummately crafted Phantasy Quartet
for oboe and string trio which dates from 1932 and followed hard on the heels of Opus 1, the Sinfonietta
for chamber orchestra. The Quartet was dedicated to and first performed by Leon Goossens in August (the BBC broadcast premiere) and November 1933 (London concert premiere). It scored Britten’s first international success the following April when it was performed at the International Society of Contemporary Music in Florence. As in Mozart’s Oboe Quartet it is the oboe which dominates the ensemble as first among equals. The Phantasy
is constructed in arch form and—remarkably for its time in pre-war England—its intricate structure suggests that the brilliant young composer in his final year at music college had already absorbed the idea of sonata-cycle compression contained in Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. Stealthily emerging from and returning to the silence in which it began, the work is framed by a march introduction and postlude. In this introduction the solo oboe enters for the first time molto pianissimo with the main theme which (while continuing to play its part in the scheme of things) proves the source of the ‘new’ contrasted themes of a terse sonata-allegro. At the climax of the development section the pace (but not, for several more bars, the developmental intensity) slackens. Unexpectedly, a slow pastoral section now intervenes, with a lengthy elaboration of a new theme for strings alone before the oboe rejoins its companions to lead the music back to the recapitulation of the sonata-allegro and the march postlude. If the pastoral slow section echoes the leisurely folkiness of an Englishry that Britten had not yet entirely rejected, the Phantasy
as a whole generates a tension and harmonic grittiness which are harbingers of a less complacent outlook.
from notes by Eric Roseberry © 1995