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Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Concerto for oboe, strings and continuo in C major, RV 447 [14:08]
Alessandro MARCELLO (1673-1747)
Concerto for oboe, strings and continuo in D minor, SF. 935 [11:00]
Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767)
Concerto for oboe d’amore, strings and continuo in G major, TWV 51:G3 [16:26]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto for oboe d’amore, strings and continuo in A major, BWV 1055R [13:28]
Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra/Kalev Kuljus (oboe d’amore)
rec. 2015/16, Lithuanian National Radio Studio
ALBA ABCD411 [55:02]

The oboe is, notoriously, one of the trickier orchestral instruments to play. It is very tiring for the player, who needs frequent rests. And the tone, though beautiful, can also be tiring for the listener. So oboe solos tend to be short – the one in the slow movement of Brahms’s violin concerto is not typical – and there are comparatively few concertos.

However, things were rather different in the eighteenth century, perhaps because the instruments were different, or expectations by both players and audiences were different. Anyway there were many oboe concertos written then, four of which appear here.

This programme is based on the artistry of the Estonian oboist Kalev Kuljus, who has been a guest player with many major orchestras and works regularly, as here, with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, Lithuania being of course a near neighbour of Estonia. Two of these works require the normal soprano oboe, and two of them its mezzo-soprano variant, the oboe d’amore. This is midway in length, pitch and tone quality between the soprano instrument and the better-known cor anglais, being somewhat darker and reedier than the soprano instrument but not as much so as the cor anglais. It was popular in the eighteenth century, but then went out of use until revived at the end of the nineteenth century.

Both Kuljus and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra use modern instruments. Kuljus plays instruments made by the Japanese company Churauto Kobo Josef, little known in Europe. It was founded by Yukio Nakamura, who had played in Western orchestras before returning to Japan and setting up his company in 1986. A number of distinguished players in Europe as well as in the East now play their instruments. Kuljus certainly produces a most attractive tone, rounder and fuller than the French-style instruments, which are popular in Europe. He also offers sensitive playing, elegant ornamentation, plenty of speed when required and the good habit of rounding off his phrases rather than leaving them blunt. He also here conducts as well as playing the solo part.

The four works here all follow a similar pattern of three movements: fast, slow, fast, except that the Telemann adds a graceful short movement marked Soave at the beginning. In the Vivaldi, one of twenty concertos which he wrote for the oboe, Kuljus conducting starts off slightly too fast, so that when he enters with the solo line he has to slow to accommodate the elaborate runs and roulades in his part. The second movement is expressively done, but in the third there is some formulaic writing by Vivaldi, and the work as a whole does not strike me as one of his best.

The Marcello, slightly to my surprise, is very attractive, even though this is not really a typical eighteenth century concerto, as the orchestra has little to do beyond accompanying the soloist. However, his line is so attractive that one doesn’t mind. The slow movement really shows off his artistry, as indeed also does the nimble and light-footed finale. Apparently this is Marcello’s best-known work, though it was new to me and I was glad to make its acquaintance.

In the Telemann concerto, one of six which he wrote for the oboe, we are introduced to the oboe d’amore, and the opening Soave allows us to relish its tone. However, the two quick movements struck me as rather impersonal and I found my attention wandering. The very short Adagio between them was more engaging.

Finally we have the best work on the disc. This is Bach’s concerto, reconstructed for oboe d’amore from the extant harpsichord concerto BWV 1055, following Donald Tovey’s observation that the solo line would originally have fitted a wind instrument and that the oboe d’amore had the right range and character for it. Again we have two cheerful outer movements surrounding an expressive slow movement, but, since this is Bach, the soloist and orchestra have equally interesting and contrasting material and Kuljus can demonstrate not only speed and agility but also expressive and beautifully-phrased slow playing.

The orchestra, conducted by Kuljus, provides jaunty, competent but not especially subtle support – I would have preferred a separate conductor who could have given his full attention to their part. The recording is slightly closer than I would have wanted, though the ear soon adjusts. The notes, in English, German and (I think) Japanese, are helpful but get into a tangle about the authenticity of the version of the Bach concerto.

Stephen Barber



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