Two Insect Pieces for oboe and piano (5 – 21 April 1935, Britten aged 21)
1 The Grasshopper
2 The Wasp
Dedication Sylvia Spencer, English oboist
Heinz Holliger (oboe), András Schiff (piano) – with kind permission of Decca Classics
Background and Critical Reception
These two short pieces are the first in a projected series of five, for Britten was preparing a suite for oboe and piano. The other three movements, also insects, only reached the sketching stage. This surviving pair were dedicated to a friend of the composer’s, the oboist Sylvia Spencer, but she appears never to have performed them in public.
Documentation on the Insect Pieces is scarce. In the notes for Decca’s new Complete Works edition, Andrew Huth acknowledges a possible debt to Bartók and Prokofiev, while in his consistently strong Essential Britten, John Bridcut admires the composer’s wit, declaring the pieces to be the first of three important works Britten wrote for the oboe.
These are charming pieces. It could be argued that the wasp is a bit too polite, for it doesn’t seem to have much of a sting in the tail – and Bridcut himself draws a parallel with The Flight of the Bumble Bee. Yet Britten creates the unmistakable image of flight in his economical writing, putting a smile on the face of the listener as the Grasshopper jumps from one spot to another, and then as the wasp buzzes around restlessly. The oboe proves the ideal instrument for the former in particular!
Sarah Francis (oboe), Michael Dussek (piano) (Hyperion)
Heinz Holliger (oboe), András Schiff (piano) (Philips, now part of Decca set)
Two very different recordings here. Holliger and Schiff take their time more, and secure stronger characterisation in the Grasshopper especially, with Schiff’s softly brushed accompaniment becoming rather furtive towards the end. The wasp, too, is more expansive – whereas Sarah Francis and Michael Dussek attack with gusto.
Also written in 1935: Gershwin – Porgy and Bess
Next up: The King’s Stamp