Ibert is best-known as a perfumed Impressionist (Escales) and a parodist (Divertissement), so this gritty oboe concerto will surprise those who know only his most popular works. It was composed in 1949 for Paul Sacher, founder and conductor of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, whose many commissions sometimes drew the day's leading composers into unexpected moods; Honegger's Symphony No. 4, for example, is uncharacteristically sunny. Ibert's Symphonie concertante, in contrast, begins grimly.
In the opening Allegro con moto, the low strings introduce a sharply angular theme, whereupon the high strings churn and roil until the oboe finally enters with a tune in lighter spirits. After a dour string intrusion, the oboe presents a dancing tune that the strings manage to corrupt upon their return. The movement continues in this contrasting manner; even when the oboe introduces an airy melody in the style of Poulenc, the strings soon begin slashing at it. The development continues this pattern of oboe and strings appropriating each other's material and altering its character. The cadenza noodles mainly with the oboe's first theme, which is derived from a few notes of the strings' opening motif. The briefest of codas finishes off the movement.
The thematic relationships are more obvious in the Adagio, ma non troppo. In a lengthy introduction, the strings play an unsettled motif, beginning with harsh sobs and spreading into a long-lined lament. The oboe offers its own version of this music, which the strings then appropriate for a jagged variation. The soloist returns with a lyrical elaboration of a portion of the theme, but the movement has now reached the peak of its arch and descends backwards through the material that has already been presented.
The finale, Allegro brillante, also springs from two contrasting themes, although unlike in the slow movement, these are completely independent of each other. The strings burst in with rapid, urgent passagework, which the oboe answers with an angular, syncopated theme. Its second melody is more spacious, but wanders up and down the staff, as if it has lost the key. The strings become preoccupied with combinations of and elaborations on their opening passagework and the angular theme, while the oboe applies itself to fast runs and trills, silencing the strings for two brief, abortive cadenzas. The strings embark on a fugal treatment of the angular theme, but this soon falls apart and the work ends with the oboe joining in a quick survey of the movement's basic materials.