Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra [19:04]
Heinz HOLLIGER (b.1939)
Sonata for Oboe solo [13:37]
Antal DORATI (1906-1988)
Divertimento for Oboe solo and Orchestra [26:49]
Yeon-Hee Kwak (oboe)
Müncher Rundfunkorchester/Johannes Goritzki
rec. 12-13 July 2008 Herkulessaal, Munich Stereo, 5.1, 2+2+2 DDD/DSD

A very enjoyable recording, this, showcasing three diverse 20th century works which all deserve wider exposure. The oboe is a curiously neglected instrument in terms of solo repertoire, and the three composers on this CD seem to have come to it for three completely different reasons: Martinů was commissioned by an oboe player (Jiri Tancibudek), and Holliger is an oboe player, while Dorati’s motivations stemmed from his sympathy for the instrument’s neglect.

In the 1920s, the influence of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism was so strong that many composers wrote works that sounded like direct imitation without even realising. Most grew out of the fad in the following decades, but Martinů continued longer than most. His Oboe Concerto was written in 1955 and has Stravinsky trademarks all over it. There is even what sounds like a direct quotation of the bitonal Petrushka motif in the second movement. Martinů has a distinctive voice, even at his most neo-classical, and fans of his symphonies, for example, will immediately recognise those long syncopated melodies, the prominent piano in the orchestra and professional efficiency of his opening and closing gestures. As with the other works on the disc, the solo part combines virtuosity and lyricism, so melodies often contain huge intervals, and appear in curious registers, but remain truly melodic throughout. (Talking of registers, there is a great typo in the liner-note: ‘The slow movement calls for a G sharp two and a half octaves above middle C, a semi-tone higher than the F which is normally regarded as the oboe’s highest note...’)

The Holliger Sonata is one of the composer/oboist/conductor’s earliest works. This, too, mixes lyricism and virtuosity in a range of inventive ways. And there is never a danger of the lack of accompaniment causing lack of interest. On the contrary, the diversity of tempi, dynamics and phrase structures makes for endlessly fascinating listening. A lot of the writing is high, but Yeon-Hee Kwak takes it all in her stride, and maintains an impressively warm tone, even right at the top.

The impetus for Antal Dorati’s Divertimento came from an unlikely source, the Discount Record and Book Store in Washington, who commissioned it to mark their 25th anniversary in 1976. It is very much a product of its time, and shows the (productive) influence of a number of the mid-century’s greatest composers. The vibraphone in the opening calls to mind the Walton Cello Concerto, while much of the following material owes a debt to Shostakovich. The orchestration here is wilfully eccentric, and you’ll hear more percussion than you would ever expect from an oboe concerto. The work is stylistically some distance from the other works, the Martinů in particular. The overall impression is of a diverse and satisfyingly varied programme.

Yeon-Hee Kwak is a fine advocate for her instrument. I sense that she is consciously striving for a vocal sound in much of her playing, which brings a clarity to her phrasing, even in the most complex passages. The Müncher Rundfunkorchester and Johannes Goritzki accompany sympathetically but without undue restraint. I don’t think this music really stretches them - well, maybe the percussion in the Dorati - but they are able to keep up the interest and move seamlessly between the various styles and moods of this diverse programme. The SACD sound is good but not exceptional. The round, fullness of the oboe sound, especially in the top register, is the main recipient of the superior audio’s benefits. The disc comes with both Dolby 5.1 surround and so-called ‘2+2+2’ sound, the latter giving a more even surround experience when the speakers are rearranged around the room. Quite what use that is for a solo work like the Holliger is anybody’s guess.

Gavin Dixon