INKPOT#35 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: J.S.BACH Oboe Concertos. Hommel/Cologne CO/Müller-Brühl (Naxos)

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Concerto for Oboe d’amore in D major, BWV 1053
Concerto for Oboe d’amore in A major, BWV 1055
Concerto for Oboe in G minor, BWV 1056
Concerto for Oboe in D minor, BWV 1059 (Adagio by Marcello)
Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor, BWV 1060*CHRISTIAN HOMMEL oboe/oboe d’amore
with Lisa Stewart* violin
Cologne Chamber Orchestra
conducted by Helmut Müller-Brühl

NAXOS 8.554169
[68’33”] budget-price

by Chia Han-Leon

A late 18th century oboe Bach’s oboe concertos belong to that group of concertos (many lost) which exist only in a transcribed form for harpsichord and orchestra (see review of the harpsichord concertos). These are thus reconstructions, some obvious and proven, some speculative. But no matter what, Bach’s art comes across in its full splendour, revealing his ability to create music of such timeless qualities that it shines through no matter in what form, what instrument.

The performances here by Christian Hommel are effective and natural, displaying both an easy finesse (listen to his turns of phrases) and a sense of the music’s many moods. The Cologne Chamber Orchestra performed in Singapore in October 1996, and proved, as they are on this disc, to be a very refined and musical group. They deliver Bach’s music with an excellent sense of both its rhythmic energy and its wonderful explorations of the various key-moods (try the opening movement of BWV1059). I retained enough faith in them to buy this CD without even considering my overwhelming preference for baroque music performed on period instruments. Happily, the orchestra proved to be appreciatively aware of the many fine points of authentic performance.

The only reservation I have here is for the very ambitious harpsichord part in the first movement of BWV 1055, which appears to falter in a few spots (e.g. at track 1, 1’19”), disturbing the rhythm of things. Nevertheless, it is a brave and colourful score: in other versions I have, the harpsichord is not even playing!

I cannot emphasize enough how fun these concertos are! The A major Oboe d’amore concerto for example, is Joy incarnated in music. It is one of Bach’s most mirthful and fun masterpieces which succeeds beyond any doubt in distilling the essence of the A major key in its exuberant summer joy. By the way, there is an even more fun (period) performance by Anthony Robson, on Virgin Veritas (VC5 45095), one of my Most-Played CDs of 1995.

On a more meditative note is the famous Largo of BWV 1056. (Retro-)Transcribed from the F minor harpsichord version, which is equally effective in a different way, this is one of the most beautiful and serene melodies by Bach (left, in his youth). To me, whenever Bach creates music in D minor, he is at his best – all the more pitiful that the concerto BWV 1059 exists only as a nine-bar fragment. Fortunately for us, the often silly obsession with plagiarism rarely affected the baroque mind (to them, to be copied was a compliment), and the external movements for this concerto were to survive in the composer’s own Cantata BWV 35.

Unverified portrait of Bach, by Johann Ernst Rentsch, 1712Left: Unverified portrait of Bach (1712), by Johann Ernst Rentsch.

The opening Allegro is a powerful statement, with marvellous string parts. The central movement continues to be difficult to uncover, and in this recording a movement by Alessandro Marcello is used – suitable, though obviously not Bach (the string sighs are reminiscent of Vivaldi). Anthony Robson, in his Virgin Veritas (VC5 45190) recording, uses the Largo from BWV 1056. Nevertheless, recordings of this concerto are quite valuable, existing as it were, in a state of being half-real, half-lost, showing us the art of Bach in its essence, without a permanent form that we can refer to.

BWV 1053 is another joyful piece, singing and skipping in melodious fashion. The performance of the central movement is perhaps a little brisk, not quite savouring the “daa-d-daa” rhythm of the siciliano. Nevertheless, it is not unmusical. Bach knows how to end a work – here the final Allegro is cheerful and conveys a sense of finality in a recurrent string phrase, altogether like a happy farewell.

The double-harpsichord concerto BWV1060 is (retro-)transcribed in its well-known version for violin and oboe, a highly potent combination of voices which fits the musing yet insistent mood of the opening movement. This was the first ever Bach work I fell in love with, which I have known for more than ten years. The melancholic beauty of the Adagio has never left its spot in my heart – surely it is one of the most heavenly duets ever composed for violin and oboe.

Although I have pointed out some reservations about this disc, they in no significant way reduce its value, and I must urge those who have not heard these works before to purchase this disc without delay.

Chia Han-Leon has just bought a new PC and is suffering from New Toy Syndrome.

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