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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Sinfonia Concertante for winds in E flat, K.297b [28:21]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Concerto for violin, oboe and strings in C minor, after BWV 1060 [15:45]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741) Concerto in C ‘San Lorenzo’ [12:14]
Douglas Boyd (oboe); Richard Hosford (clarinet); Robine O’Neill (bassoon); Jonathan Williams (horn) (Mozart); Marieke Blankestijn (violin); Douglas Boyd (oboe) (Bach); Marieke Blankestijn, Iris Juda (violins); William Conway (cello) (Vivaldi)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Alexander Schneider
rec. no date or venue information given
CD COE 803 [56:56]

 

Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for wind quartet – oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn – and orchestra is often seen as a lesser relative of the great work for violin and viola with the same title.  That may be so, but it is nonetheless an utterly beguiling and characteristic work, one which can make good wind players salivate at the mere prospect of performing it, so perfect is the writing for each of the soloists.  It has a vigorous, rather grand opening movement, culminating in an ensemble cadenza for the solo group, a magical central Adagio, and a witty and inventive set of variations on a folksy theme for its finale.  The only possible reservation about the work’s musical qualities might be that all three movements are in the same key, E flat major, which takes away some of the sense of contrast - hardly a major drawback.

The Bach Concerto for violin and oboe is, as the booklet notes explain, a transcription by the composer of an earlier harpsichord concerto.  Nowadays, however, the music is much better known in this duet form, and the central slow movement, with its graceful solo lines over soft plucked strings, is a particular delight.

Vivaldi’s little ‘San Lorenzo’ concerto grosso – so named because it is believed to have been written for the convent church of San Lorenzo in Venice  - is a typically quirky piece, unusual too in its apparent requirement for a pair of clarinets among the solo group.  There is some dispute about this; the clarinet was in its infancy in Vivaldi’s day, and he actually specifies an instrument described as ‘claren’, which could conceivably indicate trumpets.  However, the fairly athletic nature of the parts makes that less likely, and despite occasionally making the music sound more like Stravinsky in his ‘Pulcinella’ vein, the clarinets sound splendid.

This is a typically entertaining and unpredictable piece of Vivaldi; one little mystery though – why are there said to be just two movements in the concerto when there are quite plainly three?  Hence track 8 begins with a clearly defined and rather lovely slow movement in G minor, in the composer’s favourite free ground bass form, marked Largo e cantabile – ‘broad and songful’.  There then follows a joyful and brilliant concluding Allegro in the home key of C majorIt’s probably an editor’s problem, in which case no blame attaches to the performers or producer.   But it still makes no sense!

This is a recording of a live concert, a fact which accounts for both its strengths and weaknesses.  The latter first; there is a surprising number of incidental errors, of the sort that are no big deal in a concert, but could be irritating or disappointing in a recording.  Some wrong notes in the oboe in the slow movement of the Mozart (according to my score anyway), various minor fluffs from soloists in the variations, brought about largely by the slightly rushed tempo, and what sounds like a massive boob by a clarinettist a few bars into the Vivaldi.  In other words, just a little on the accident-prone side given the players concerned.

But they are fine players, and what the performance loses in studio-based perfection it gains through the palpable ‘buzz’ of a live event.  Schneider sets a cracking tempo for the opening ritornello – just a little too cracking, for the orchestral musicians sound hurried and uncomfortable.  Fortunately, when the soloists enter, the tempo relaxes ever so slightly, and the music gains immeasurably.  Schneider, however, has other ideas, and he tends to push forward each time there is a tutti.

The slow movement, however is glorious, the beautifully balanced interplay of the solo group reminding me of some of the great ensembles in Mozart operas – sublime music-making, and, even in this distinguished company, the horn playing of Jonathan Williams stands out.  He has that rare capacity amongst horn players to fine his tone down so that it matches his woodwind colleagues, and he turns his phrases with breathtaking elegance.  That’s true in the finale, too, though once again the tempo is just on the uncomfortable side of lively, and this time even the soloists are affected, with small errors creeping into the woodwind parts. 

The Bach is more polished, with Boyd and Blankestijn perfectly matched in their approach and their musicality, the slow movement being particularly lovely in this respect.  And the Vivaldi rattles along in the most infectious way (once that howler in the first few bars is behind us).

On balance, the many virtues of this CD overwhelm its niggling imperfections.  Some would say the disc was worth having for the Adagio of the Sinfonia Concertante alone – and I’m inclined to concur.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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