> BACH Music for Oboe and Harpsichord [JPo]: Classical Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Music for Oboe and Harpsichord
Sonata in G minor, BWV1030b (after 1750) [17’34"]
Sonata in E flat, BWV1031 (c.1731) [10’53"]
‘Organ’ trio sonata in C, BWV529 (c.1729) [13’55"]
Sonata in G minor, BWV1020 (?1730-40) [12’16"]
Sonata in C, BWV1033 for unaccompanied oboe (after 1750) [9’28"]
Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV871, from the Well-Tempered Klavier, Book II, for Harpsichord (1738-42) [6’32"]
Gail Hennessy (baroque oboe) and Nicholas Parle (harpsichord)
Recorded at St. Andrew’s Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire on 13-16 December 2000
SIGNUM SIGCD034 [68’39"]
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Gifted musician that he was, J. S. Bach wrote only twenty sonatas for solo instruments, and of these, three are of dubious origin. Twelve of the twenty however have obbligato harpsichord accompaniment. No authentic manuscript copies of solo oboe works survive or are documented, all the above being originally intended for other instruments. BWV 1030b, 1031 and 1033 were written for the flute, whilst BWV1020 is better known when played on the violin, although its attribution to Bach is spurious. This practice was common in Bach’s day, i.e. to utilise works from one medium to another, particularly when faced with the availability or otherwise of the instrument for which it was written.

BWV1030b has an autograph copy for the flute in B minor, but from the style it is tempting to deduce that the oboe version pre-dated the flute (in other words was the authentic original) and Jonathan Baxendale in the booklet gives a cogent argument for this. Certainly, the more plangent tone quality of the oboe gives more timbre and body to the piece than would be obtainable on the flute. However, the very nature of the oboe in Bach’s day was even more strident, and could thus have been pre-disposed to the arrangement for the gentler flute as being more suitable a partner for the harpsichord.

BWV529 is the only other accompanied work on the disc to be unmistakably of J. S. Bach’s authorship; it is an arrangement of the fifth Trio Sonata for Organ. These were supposedly composed for Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann to consolidate his organ technique. This piece has a concerto-like effect and structure of three movements, Allegro-Largo-Allegro, recalls the Italianate composers such as Vivaldi and is quite a lively sonata.

The other G minor sonata, BWV1020, is of more doubtful authenticity, as are the following oboe pieces. This one is included usually with other violin sonatas, half of them of possibly spurious attribution. Several sources have attributed the work to Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, but this is still uncertain. The sonata is in three movement Allegro-Adagio-Allegro form.

The E flat sonata, BWV1031, is again uncertain in origin, the manuscript bearing a title page written most certainly by Carl Philip Emanuel; this however indicated his father as the composer, as did another source. This again is in the three movement form of Allegro-Siciliano-Allegro.

The remaining oboe piece, the sonata in C BWV1033, is for unaccompanied oboe. This has been "restored" to what was considered the original intention of a solo instrument from an arrangement with continuo bass and harpsichord obbligato in the Minuets. The movements are certainly unusual and are thought to have been by Johann Sebastian’s hand, being Andante-Presto, Allegro, Adagio, and Minuets I & II. This was surely an odd way to complete a sonata?

The other offering on the disc is a performance of the Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV871, from the Well-Tempered Klavier Book II, played, as is proper, as a solo work on the harpsichord.

One must say at once that the technical quality of the performances is excellent; the performers have played together for 15 years, and thus have good rapport and knowledge of each other’s styles. The baroque flute has a much more rounded tone than its more modern reedy successor, and Gail Hennessy is a practised exponent of the instrument with good phrasing and breath control. She specialises in the baroque oboe, and teaches the instrument at several centres of music. Nicholas Parle is an internationally known harpsichordist, and is Professor of harpsichord at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Why then, given the impeccable pedigrees of the soloists does this disc not appeal more to me? The first reason is that in reviewing it, one listens to the whole disc throughout; this becomes somewhat tedious in terms of the necessarily somewhat strident tone of the oboe, and the "clanginess" of the harpsichord, and it is a disc better dipped into than heard at one sitting. Secondly, I found the performances too "cool", almost reserved in their nature. I enjoy Bach, and the one item that gave me pleasure was BWV529, the transcription from the organ work. This had some purpose in its execution, and apart from a very largo largo, made me wish that the approach here had been present in the other items. In these others, the speeds were deliberate, and the works tended to drag. This tendency was also present in the harpsichord solo prelude and fugue, both movements being of approximately the same speed; thus the prelude’s allegro was more moderato, and the fugue’s tempo was also nondescript - not as maestoso as I would have wished. I was following this in the Tovey edition; I assume Nicholas Parle was using the same, as the performance was faithful to the edition. This brings one more slight quibble into the issue; no references to the editions or the manuscripts used are given, or are they the result of research by the participants? It would be nice to know.

So, a disc to appeal more to oboists than generalists, and one not for continuous listening. Apart from my comment on the origins of the music the booklet is well presented and scholarly.

John Portwood

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