Jock Sutcliffe

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The Independent Online

Sidney Sutcliffe, oboist: born Edinburgh 6 October 1918; married 1948 Thelma Roberts (three daughters; died 1987); died London 5 July 2001.

Jock Sutcliffe was one of the last of the great individualists who made up the wind section of the Philharmonia Orchestra at its peak in the 1950s.

A versatile performing musician for 75 years, he was a popular and much-loved figure in the musical world. Modest, almost self-effacing, he rose to the top of the profession as a consummate oboist, but also as a musician of wide sympathies and boundless enthusiasm. Even in his last years, he was always helping out in this concert or that, his ready wit and infectious laughter never far from the surface. He was the model for Hoffnung's celebrated cartoon in the 1950s, and it conjures up perfectly his tireless joy in music-making.

He was born Sidney Sutcliffe and brought up in Edinburgh. His parents, Stanley and Elsie, were professional musicians, who made a modest living in a trio playing in local hotels, tea rooms and cinemas. Jock was the only child, and he inherited his parent's practical musical skills. He soon found his way round the cello, and was just seven when he made his public début; when the violinist in the trio fell ill, his father switched to the violin, and Jock found himself playing the cello part.

His upbringing saw no artificial musical boundaries – popular or serious, it was all there to be enjoyed and played. But by the early 1930s, times were hard. Musicians were badly hit by the slump, and the development of the talkies led to the end of work in the cinema; the Sutcliffe parents had to contend with long periods of unemployment. At 14, and in search of a regular income, Jock joined the army band of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, sending his wages home to his parents. It proved the turning-point in his life. The bandmaster needed to train up another oboist and Sutcliffe was volunteered. Within five years of starting, he was appointed principal oboe in the Sadler's Wells Orchestra.

His rapid ascent was helped by a Kneller Hall Scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied oboe first with Bill Shepley, later with Leon Goossens.

Goossens was far and away the best known and imposing of British oboists. His approach combined the tonal strength of the German school with softer mellifluous timbres, and Sutcliffe inherited this style. Even in later life, he seemed in awe of Goossens, though his own achievements were no less formidable.

His fresh-faced arrival on the London orchestral scene was interrupted almost immediately by the Second World War. Eyesight problems confined him to home duties, and, ever resourceful, he taught himself the saxophone and clarinet to play in dance bands, as well as composing and arranging. Music was a natural way of life to him. In 1945, he became principal oboe of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, where all four oboists would often arrive for sessions clad in motor-bike leathers.

But his lasting achievement was with the Philharmonia Orchestra. He joined it in 1949, and spent 15 years there, playing in Walter Legge's hand-picked ensemble. The wind section, which also included the flautist Gareth Morris, the clarinettist Bernard Walton, the bassoonist Gwydion Brooke and the horn-player Dennis Brain, is still regarded as one of the greatest ever assembled.

Its collective energy and commitment, pin-point articulation and above all a sense of risk-taking can be heard in numerous fine recordings with Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Carlo Maria Giulini, Otto Klemperer and others, many of them landmarks in the catalogue: the orchestra also graced classic Ealing films. The thrilling, distinctive sound of the wind section, in repertoire as varied as Bach, Rossini, Wagner and Stravinsky, lingers long in the mind. To this period also belong two celebrated Mozart recordings – the Sinfonia concertante for wind, and the piano and wind Quintet with Walter Gieseking.

In his later career, Sutcliffe enjoyed seven fruitful years at the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1964-71), and then guested with many orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra. He made a popular recording of Baroque oboe concertos, recently re-issued. His refined, imaginative playing was little dimmed by the years, and even in his late sixties he could conjure up a fine performance of the Strauss Oboe Concerto. He taught for many years at the Royal College of Music, where his approach was always encouraging but never didactic. "Lovely, but if I may just make a suggestion . . . " was almost his catchphrase. He coached most of the national youth orchestras at one time or the other, and even this summer was due to help out with the NYO of Wales.

The unexpected death of his wife in 1987 was a shock, but Sutcliffe found new outlets for his limitless musical talents, teaching for various local authorities, and he took particular pleasure in his regular support work at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where he was adored by staff and pupils alike. In later life, he returned more and more to the cello, and his musical life came, as it were, full circle. He was taken ill attending a concert at the Wigmore Hall – so, fittingly, for this most musical of musicians, his final experience was listening to a concert in the hall where he himself had given his London solo début.

Nigel Wilkinson

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