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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN(1770-1827)
Oboe Trio in C major, Op. 87
Variations in C major on Là ci darem la mano from Mozart's opera 'Don Giovanni', WoO 28
Anton WRANITZKY (1761-1820)

Oboe Trio in C major
John Abberger / Marc Schachman, oboes; Lani Spahr, cor anglais
Recorded Connecticut, USA, 1999
NAXOS 8.554550 [59:20]


Do you know any of those people who suggest that you should never listen to classical music when doing something else, i.e. you should not use it as background music? I do. If anyone tries that one on you with an air of "tut-tut" then remind them that there is a huge body of music written for that very purpose. It may include dance music but also "soirée" type pieces that would be played while people chatted, ate, drank, flirted, perambulated or whatever.

The music we have on this disc is late 18th century Austrian background music, belonging to a period when the aristocratic houses were beginning to feel an economic pinch and as a result were trimming their private orchestras. Just a little earlier Mozart was able to write functional music of this type for the same market with works, for example, scored for many wind instruments; or string orchestra (as in Eine kleine Nachtmusik).

By the mid-1790s, Beethoven and his older contemporary, Anton Wranitzky, were having to write for much more limited resources: in this case two oboes and a cor anglais – three double reed instruments which make for a pungent sound, especially on the two keyed, authentic instruments used on the disc. I surmise that what we have here is an example of a supremely great composer not trying very hard, and a much lesser one putting in quite a bit of effort. So the playing field is a great deal more level than it otherwise might be.

Little is known about the circumstances of composition and performance of these works. Beethoven’s Don Giovanni variations (testimony to the fact that shortly after his death Mozart was becoming a very popular composer in Vienna) may well have been intended as a movement in the trio. What we do know is that both composers shared some of the same patrons. They knew each other well and Anton’s brother Paul conducted the premiere of Beethoven’s First Symphony. Who knows – these works may have been played on similar occasions for the same patron.

There is much to delight in the music, and interest in comparing the two composers. Beethoven may not be on top form but still shows his class over Wranitzky who, in keeping with lesser talents, relies so much more on sequence and repetition to keep the music going. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Wranitzky’s andante variations and his rondo finale has great joie de vivre with a couple of telling excursions into minor key territory.

Irrespective of the music, I thought the disc worth having as an example of fine playing on copies of contemporary instruments. There is that extra penetrating sound that may have been particularly suitable for outdoor performance at a summer soirée. The players are notable in this field in North America (there is an informative note in the booklet) and their ensemble playing is immaculate. This is notably apparent in the Presto of the Beethoven piece with its staccato chords. Occasionally there is a hint of struggle in fast runs but this probably betrays the fact that the players are faced with tricky cross fingerings, necessary when there are only two keys at their disposal.

It is possible sometimes to hear the clatter of these keys, so close is the recording. The sound is very clean but I was a little disconcerted at certain harshness when I played the disc on my up-market hi-fi. However, on ordinary equipment this was not evident and if you do want to listen to the music in the spirit in which it was written – as background – then it should sound well in the car, the kitchen, or wherever suits you.

John Leeman

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