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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958): Oboe Concerto (1942)
A critical evaluation of the three first recordings of Mitch Miller (1947), Léon Goossens (dedicatee, 1952) and Evelyn Rothwell (1956)

Oboe concertos of the 20th century: until 1960 a sad chapter in music history! It is also the history of missed opportunities as in the case of Debussy and Nielsen. Later on, almost all eminent composers, urged by oboists like Lothar Faber or Heinz Holliger, wrote oboe concertos, from the period before we have only a few examples by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1944), Richard Strauss (1945), Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1952) and Bohuslav Martinu (1955).

The first recordings
Léon Gossens 1952
Mitch Miller 1947
Evelyn Rothwell 1956
Some details: 1st movement
Some details: 2nd movement
Some details: 3rd movement

Live Recording with Matthias Arter (entire work)



Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) wrote his oboe concerto towards the end of the 2nd world war for the famous british oboist Léon Goossens. It was intended to be premiered at a Proms concert but due to the thread of V1 rocket raids on London the piece was first played in Liverpool instead. We examined the three studio recordings of the work that were made during the composer’s lifetime. They are very meaningful documents of the changing style not just of oboe playing but most notably of the general approach to music, fidelity to the written text and the rapidly improving recording technique..


The recording with the dedicatee Léon Gossens is indeed only the second, however due to the age (55) and the unique charisma of the soloist it represents the „old style“ even more than the two other recordings. This means that the interpretation is characterized by an amazing agogic freedom throughout the whole piece, which todays musicians would (almost) never risk. One really seems to be in another world of music, no caution or attempt at technical perfection – which would be the style we seem to be accustomed to much too much today!
The first recording of Vaughan Williams’ concerto was made in the U.S.A. – in 1946, Mitch Miller was the 36 year old soloist – the third recording back in England again: the 45 year old Evelyn Rothwell with her husband Sir John Barbirolli as conductor in 1956. All three recordings show a great deal of freedom in respect to tempo and thereby achieve a remarkable expressiveness in comparison with more recent versions. We will now chiefly concentrate on tempo matters and just occasioally touch on other parameters, such as sound, differing text versions, balance and others.


First of all we will try to evaluate the work and the three recordings in a general way. Since Vaughan Williams undoubtedly had Léon Gossens’ style in mind when he composed the piece, we have to attribute a high level of authencity to his recording. The form of the composition is quite free – for instance 50% of the first movement consists of cadenzas and free sections – the recapitulation is completely transformed into a big cadenza! – many passages for the oboe are of an ornametal nature, the polyphonic structure and orchestral interludes are reduced to an absolute minimum (compared eg. to the Strauss-Concerto!). Goossens’ way of playing (documented on many orchestra recordings with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic) has influenced a whole generation of oboe players; he was the first to use a broad vibrato all the time and played soloistic passages in a most expressive way.

Georges Bizet – Sinfonie (2ND MOVEMENT, EXC.) 37 Walter Goehr – London Philharmonic Orchestra

This kind of „Tempo rubato“, the playing outside of the metronomic time, is predominant for his interpretation of the Vaughan Williams – Concerto. He plays in the singing and declamatory style of a „primadonna assoluta“ and therefore endangers often the coordination with the orchestra. The dialog howewer works quite well, the tempo fluctuation is organic and the accompaniment is very attentive.


The recording of the Vaughan Williams concerto is available in the iTunes store.


Much like Léon Gossens, the first oboist to record this concerto, was an charismatic personality. Mitch Miller played for Leopold Stokowski at the age of 20 and made many jazz recordings with Alec Wilder. At the same time as Vaughan Williams he recorded also the Mozart (playing interesting cadenzas!) and Cimarosa concertos. His vibrato is a bit less sweeping than Goosens’, sometimes also a bit out of control, his Tempo rubato is more discreet but very speaking, personal and touching.

Cimarosa: Oboe CONCERTO – 1ST MOVEMENT, BeginnING (1947) Saidenberg little Symphony – Daniel Saidenberg

Mitch's interpretation of the Vaughan Williams concerto shows a more controlled organisation of the rhythmical structure compared to Goossens' and is played with a beautiful sound throughout. On the one hand his tempo rubato is not as strong as Goossens’, on the other hand the tempo modifications between the different parts are even more pronounced. The limited recording technique provides us with some problems of balance with the orchestra and the dynamics are restricted. Miller presents an amazing amount of imprecision in regard to the written text, such as wrong notes, dynamics and articulation (even in the orchestra part there are significant changes!).


The Vaughan Williams concerto is available (together with Mozart and Cimarosa) AS downloaD.



Evelyn Rothwell, born in the same year (1911) as Mitch Miller and therefore almost one generation younger than Goossens, was the latter's student at the Royal College of Music and learned the soloistic style of vibrato-saturated playing from him. She was a member of the London Symphony Orchestra (1934 – 39) and afterwards choosed a career as a soloist and as an artistic secretary of her husband, Sir John Barbirolli. With her book „Oboe Technique“ (1952) and her teaching at the Royal Academy of Music she influenced a whole generation of british oboe players. The rigid control of the agogic nuances and tempo rubato already began in this period as we can learn from her recordings. This change of parameters clearly shows us the renunciation of the „old style“ and the way to the modern, vertically organized style of the period after the 2nd world war.

As an illustration of this already quite modern style, listen to her version of the 2nd mouvement-solo of Brahms’ first symphony (recording 1939, Felix Weingartner conducting the London Symphony Orchestra)

Brahms: 1ST SYMPHONY, 2ND MOVEMENT, EXC (1939, London Symphony Orchestra – Felix Weingartner)

In her recording of the Vaughan Williams concerto – at that time she was already „Lady Barbirolli“ – she gives us a sample of her controlled and at the same time personal oboe playing. She plays with less agogic phrasing then her predecessors: the conductor (Sir John Barbirolli!) conducts, she just plays along...
The recording technique is much better now, we are at the threshold of the stereo-era and Sir John emphasizes much more the polyphonic structure of the orchestra than the former conductors. Evelyn’s oboe sound is rather persistent, her vibrato quite slow. Her dynamic ideas don’t correspond too much with the score and we have to call them extreme in both ranges, piano and forte.


The Vaughan Williams Concerto is available on several EMI-CDs, eg. EMI Classics 724356654327 (2 CDs)


Allegro moderato (MM: crotchet = 88)

The first movement is virtually a portrait of the dedicatee Léon Gossens and his style of playing. Half of it is composed in a very free, cadenza-like style. The recapitulation for instance is completely composed as a cadenza with very few bars in a steady tempo. Even the form is rather free we can detect five sections of different character (figures used in the edition of Oxford University Press, 1967)


1st theme (beginning)
2nd theme (C) (scherzando)
3rd theme (F) (cantabile)
Cadenza accompagnata with elements of a recapitulation (H)
Coda (L)

It is obvious that the metrome indications of the composer are just meant as a general tempo and not at all an unchangeable pulse. In any case this would have been completely unusual in the performance style of the romantic and postromantic period as we know from all recordings. Therefore it is not surprising that the three interpretations offer individual and free approaches to this aspect.

NB. Our tempo indication always refers to tempo range, as we can detect tempo fluctuations within all sections.


Vaughan Williams: oboe concerto, 1st movement, Allegro moderato (MM. crotchet = 88)
Tempo ranges and total durations of the three interpretations


1st theme

2nd theme (C)

3rd theme (F)

Cadenza (H)



Miller 47

MM 75

MM 96

MM 76

MM 50

MM 48


Goossens 52

MM 75

MM 96

MM 74

MM 69

MM 58


Rothwell 56

MM 83

MM 96

MM 86

MM 50

MM 58


Obviously the tempo modifications correspond to a genuine performance style of the period. There is no reason to doubt the competence of the musicians, they were all eminent authorities at the time! Even the most modern recording that shows only little tempo rubato (Rothwell),  provides us with tempo modifications between 50 and 96. The most unconventional on the other hand is just apparently more moderate (48 to 96); his cadenzas sometimes reach a most unbelievable speed and an amazing amount of freedom.

Some unusual features of the three interpretations are mentioned here to illustrate the characterization described above:

Goossens: start of the 1st mouvement with a improvisatory feeling, very freely and continuously leading to the first cadenza - also the other cadenzas after H are played in the same style.

Miller Before A: he varies the articulation unconventionally (everything is marked legato!), obtaining an effective discursive character.

Rothwell At B:"The conductor conducts, the oboe player just plays along", little freedom of the soloist.

Miller AT B: played "declamato" in a very personal style (indicated, again, is legato)

Gossens after C: coordination problems due to agogic playing of the soloist. Not very organic ritenuto before D, later on not the motoric movement we would expect but again agogic phrasing - making an absolut vertical precision impossible!

Rothwell At C: some wrong notes (deliberately?). Extreme dynamics, quite heavy and "in your face".

Miller after D: strange version (sounds more like a simplified version than a musically meaningful one) with repeated notes instead the original intervals.

Miller after K: variable vibrato and a most sensitive phrasing.

Rothwell after K: many little and quite extreme dynamic details, eg. the last phrase (after L) is notated pp!

Goossens After K: big phrasing, rhythmically very free, even playful!

Minuet & Musette (MM: whole bar = 64)

The second movement is a three-part minuet with a musette – trio and a free recapitulation. All three recordings present the whole piece in a steady speed without big modification of tempo. For a rudimentary tempo comparison the playing time is quite telling:


tempo range

duration 2nd mov


Miller 47



fluent, big phrasing

Goossens 52



pointed articulation, overdotted rhythms

Rothwell 56



serious, heavy, without esprit and humour

To get an impression of the three different interpretations, listen to the first 20 bars of each recording!

Mitch Miller

Léon Goossens

Evelyn Rothwell

In Miller's version we can again detect some unconventional (but not unmusical) changes of the written text (articulaton), eg. during the transition to the musette.

At the same point, Goossens provides us with a noticable, almost excessive ritardando.

Finale (Scherzo), Presto (whole bar = 86)

After the „little scherzo“ of the first movement (figure C), the „medium scherzo“ (the 2nd movement) we are getting now to the big and real scherzo: it is the largest movement of the concerto and, like the first, treats the form rather freely: a first section with no less than 8 (!) themes is followed by a 9th theme, which is further developed up to climax after figure V. After a short recapitulation of the main theme we face a short cadenza and a broad melody of the oboe on simple harmonies of the strings („doppio più lento“).

I. Scherzo (themes 1 – 9) - cadenza
II. Doppio più lento (N)
III. shortened reprise of the scherzo (13 bars after R) (themes 3, 5, 6, 7, 8) – lento-insertion (theme 9) – recapitulation of theme 1 - cadenza an reminiscence of first motive of the 1st movement.

Judging our three recordings one must be conscious of the circumstances under which they were made: the length of the takes was restricted by the capacity of the matrixes (max. 4' 30 ") and cuts were not possible. The technical requirements of the 3rd movement are considerably higher than those of the 1st and 2nd, there are many fast passages which are not easy to play, not only for the oboe but also also for the orchestra parts. So a certain stress potential is already given by the score and the consequences of it are noticeable, especially in Miller's version. He takes up the challenge in sporty fashion and seems to by quite restless and tense.

When we listen to Gossens, we got another impression: calme and shaped tempo, which gives him the opportunity for eloquent characterization and precise articulation – as it does for the orchestra!

Evelyn Rothwell plays this section impulsively, capriciously, technically not quite perfectly, but she shows much evidence of characterizing the different themes.

In the first cadenza we hear an unconventional version with Miller which obviously is due to a change of the matrixes (I just have a digitalized version of the recording, not the original pressings); such changings of the musical text were common at that time, of course nobody expected the recordings to be joined together to be played in an uninterrupted span as is the case in our time.

Now listen to the fast Gossens – version with the realisation of the original text.

For easy comparison of the three versions, a list of the playing time of the separate sections is most informative.


Mitch Miller 47

Léon Gossens 52

Evelyn Rothwell 56

I. Scherzo – Cadenza

3.08 (*MM. 80-86)

3.20 (*MM. 69-73)

3.01 (*MM. 75-88)

II. Doppio più lento

3.03 (**MM. 67-82)

2.19 (**MM. 78-104)

3.36 (**MM. 66-72)

III. Scherzo (reprise)




 (1 shortened reprise)




 (2 lento-insertion)

 (1.00)(***MM about 58)

 (0.53)(***MM about 70)

 (1.40)(***MM about 38)

 (3 recap theme 1)




TT 3rd movement




* whole bars       ** quarter notes      ***half notes

While the fast parts are played by everyone in a similar tempo (Gossens however, is the most unhurried), we detect significant differences in the slow sections. Gossens plays exactly what is written in the score in the "doppio più lento" (half-note becomes crotchet),  thereby the music clearly moves in whole bars. This version is in a convincingly declamatory style,  whereas the Barbirolli/Rothwell – version provides us with vertical, static expression, caused by a much slower tempo (whole bar becomes crotchet, therefore a three time slower tempo is realized);  notice the similarity of teacher (Gossens) and pupil (Rothwell)!

LEon Goossens

Evelyn Rothwell

In this section Mitch miller strikes a balance, his interpretation is most convincing in its expression when he plays alone, using a speaking but not exaggerated tempo rubato making it a touching lamento; the orchestra on the other hand is a bit clumsy in its accompaniment so that the flow is sometimes interrupted

We get the same impression listening to the Lento insertion: Barbirolli chooses the slowest tempo – however he is right when we read in Vaughan Williams’ score „ whole bar becomes crotchet“, Gossens’ idea "whole bar becomes half note" is more convincing since it makes plausible the connection to the 9th theme at figure K. The assumption is permitted that it is just a misprint, an impression which cannot be confirmed at the moment due to the lack of a critical score. The edited score is not very accurat anyway, it contains numerous obvious misprints and also shows differences between the piano reduction, the solo part and the score: therefore I assume that in this case the authenticity of the interpreter of the premiere (Gossens) is a stronger evidence than the score.

Léon Goossens

Evelyn Rothwell

As an addendum and without detailed comments you might listen to the last (quite tricky) cadenza. Please be aware that mistakes could not be corrected afterwards; since it is the end of a 4-minute take, it is almost a live recording. Please do not judge too severely while listening the three versions...

Mitch Miller

LEon Goossens

Evelyn Rothwell

The three recordings show the change of some general features of interpretation. The liberty which is completely  natural for Léon Gossens – already a bit less for Mitch Miller – was abandoned during the 1950s, achieving a higher level of vertical rhythmic control. All later recordings I know go in the same direction. Probably the most extreme one is Maurice Burgue’s version (English String Orchestra directed by William Boughton), who hardly allows himself any rubato throughout the entire piece (Nimbus Records). In a period like now, where so many people deal with historically informed interpretation, it is quite strange to forget about an authentic tradition that is so close to our time as Vaughan Williams', all the more so because we have this excellent acoustic evidence of the style of the epoch!

Recently I had the opportunity of playing the piece with a very small orchestra without conductor. We took the risk of playing it in a „old“ style and it did not work badly! Listen to our live-recording and enjoy!

Matthias Arter - Concento Stravagante (leader Jens Lohmann) - live 15 march 2009

1st movement

2nd movement

3rd movement

Matthias Arter, Mayi 2009





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