Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Ouvertures-Suites, BWV 1066-69
Jasu Moisio (oboe), Sophie Gent (violin)
Ensemble Masques/Olivier Fortin (harpsichord)
rec. 2021, Tap-Theatre Auditorium de Poitiers, France
ALPHA 832 
I follow Alpha’s composite title ‘Ouvertures-Suites’. Bach’s title ‘Ouverture’ was German practice for a Suite beginning with an Overture, French spelling because a French overture: stately opening section, faster fugal section, closing slow one. Suite, however, is a better term because, although the Overture is the longest and most imposing item, it’s followed by lots of highly varied dances. This CD features period instruments and a small band, one instrument per part, plus basso continuo. Moreover, care has been taken to return to the original versions of the music. Suite 2 comes not in B minor for flute and orchestra, but in A minor for oboe and orchestra; Suites 3 and 4 come without the later added parts for trumpets and drums.
Immediate audio-visual insight into the historical context of this CD and style of Ensemble Masques (hereafter EM) comes in this youtube link of excerpts from 2018. You’ll see it’s easier to play fast, with great but not exhausting energy, with a small, tight group, while the clip of Suite 3 Air shows EM can be as reflective, rich and clear in accompaniment as you could wish. The gain in a small ensemble performance is realizing the ethereal first violin melody is affirmatively supported by the responses of the second violin and viola, very clear in this CD account (tr. 16) of radiant sensitivity and richness without ever becoming mawkish.
Suite 2 played by oboe is of course the biggest ask. Errors in the copying of the earliest manuscript source indicate that the work was originally in A minor, within the comfortable range of the oboe but not the flute. As the oboe and first violin lines are often identical, judicious opportunity is taken by EM to alternate and blend these principal instruments as soloists. In the Overture’s opening section, the oboe dominates but the basso continuo is also powerfully present and bristling trills abound. In the second, fast section the violin first takes centre stage, but the oboe takes the marked solo passages with skeletal accompaniment (tr. 8, 3:15, 3:59), thereafter both alternate in semiquaver runs. All’s deftly articulated and intensity builds as the alternation proceeds. The Lentement closing section (5:50) finds oboe and violin in a firmly projected duet. To get all 4 suites on one CD EM make the repeat of the first section but not the others
I compare another recording featuring oboe and small period ensemble, made in 2010 by Four Centuries of Bach/John Abberger (oboe) (Analekta AN 29945, download only in UK). This is a less contrasted, ‘straighter’ account of the score, with violin mainly doubling the oboe principal. Abberger doesn’t try at the opening to make a really imposing sound. Indeed, his repeat is pleasingly a little quieter. The line flows and is easy on the ear; but eventually I had overmuch a feeling of sameness that I don’t get with EM’s alternations.
In the Rondeau, EM’s oboist takes the first strain, the violin the opening of the second, but in the second part of this where their lines are different (tr. 9, 1:01) their respective roles become clear and their progress becomes more resolute before finally the oboe returns to the foreground. EM show how aria-like edge can be incorporated into the formalities of a dance. Abberger without such contrasts is quieter but thereby achieves a more pastoral quality. In the EM Sarabande in both strains the violin begins with sheeny, refined glint, the oboe has the repeats, more soulful, bringing a more vocal, tragic intensity. Abberger’s Sarabande is a sunny bathe with some glimpses of pain but not EM’s edge. In Bourrée 1, EM’s first violin is the soloist, in Bourrée 2 the oboe, while in the return of Bourrée 1 oboe joins violin on the repeat of the first strain and for the one time only presentation of the second. Both groups are nifty but again EM has more edge.
Though the Polonaise is marked ‘Lentement’, EM make it strut, strings only, dapper in rhythm, which neatly allows the oboe to supply the descant counterpoint melody in the following Double with the freedom and rustic sound of a shepherd piping over the basso continuo’s continuation of the Polonaise tune. Abberger gains a striking effect from the oboe at the very start by having it shining above the violin, while in the second strain he has the violin alone for the first half but gives the oboe the descant role in the Double. Thus, here alone he adopts EM’s alternation. A seamless transition is made by EM to the oboe perkily taking the lead in the first strain of the following Minuet, with oboe and violin frequently alternating in the second. Abberger’s soloists stay together and thereby seem a little too laid-back. Finally, the ‘hit number’, the Badinerie. EM’s oboist Jasu Moisio comes full of zest and élan, trills usually just glanced at, the closing appoggiatura the only and suitable moment of repose in 1:25. John Abberger, at 1:22, is cheekier, with a more flourishing, romping manner, scant notice of the appoggiatura end.
In Suite 4 with 3 oboes as well as 2 violin and viola parts EM produce a splendid, regal, sonorous sound, albeit their robust basso continuo lacks the incisiveness of the upper strings and I miss the revised version’s cutting across chords of the trumpets and drumbeats. Yet the passage for strings alone (tr. 20, 5:26) has an attractively demure, retiring manner. EM’s second section (2:59) goes well, gambolling figures exchanged between oboes and strings and sustained and staccato notes by turns cutting across. EM’s closing section (6:23) is a majestic summation of Bach’s masterful weave of counterpoint at a suitably ceremonious pace.
Abberger accepts a chamber music manner throughout, a quieter, lambently elegant manner, sleeker lines still of clear interplay allowing the substance of the music satisfying clarity. Abberger’s second section is a merrier dance, his third sheenily assured. His tempo is faster, 6:55 against EM’s 7:42; his Overture including repeats not from EM taking 11:23.