Given the preponderance of keyboard and string concertos in the standard repertoire, the solo wind equivalents are more often viewed (and programmed) as side dish than entrée. Happily, with these three discs, Alex Klein has gone a long way to make the case for expanding the oboe menu beyond Mozart and Richard Strauss.
But don’t buy these gems solely for Klein’s considerable skill and artistry; they belong in any music-lover’s collection for their insight as to how composers spanning three centuries have approached the challenge of writing for the nightingale of the double reeds.
Oboe Concertos of the Classical Era
From first bar to final coda, the pair of F-major Krommers are infectious. Klein’s flexible, centred tone and wide-range of articulation are constant pleasures. Only a somewhat strident top and inability to clip the staccati in concert with the violins provide any quibbles. Paul Freeman and his merry band scurry along supportively, creating jaunty, jolly “Allegros” and unleashing compelling zest and joie de vivre in the “Rondos.” But it’s the two slow movements that provide greatest satisfaction. In Op. 37, Klein’s opening change of register is exquisitely rendered, his understanding of the implication tragically rare amongst many of his colleagues around the globe. Similarly in Op. 52, the release of the augmented 6th, following the Don Giovanni-hued opening drama, draws us miraculously into the minor, then the further reward of a true pianissimo. Such attention to detail by all concerned more than makes up for the composer’s slight use of counterpoint and limited development techniques.
The encore, a Theme and Variations, suffers briefly from near-brutal attacks in the opening measures only to be tamed by Klein’s richly-sensitive melodic inflection, which he weaves in and around the other winds, notably the stellar flute. If the music-box theme that follows could be bottled and sold, the world would have the universal antidote for depression; a veritable Salve me. Hummel’s deceptively childlike construction sets the stage for the variants that burst with technical wizardry and are tempered by an array of comments and interventions from the orchestra (particularly welcome are those from the bassoon) before a charming “Walzer” sends everyone dancing into the night.
Twentieth Century Oboe Concertos
The buoyancy and naïveté so brilliantly captured in the first disc couldn’t have starker contrast than its trio of counterparts from the twentieth century.
The Martinů concerto is worth the price of all three discs combined. Right off the bat the balance is better (the early works leaving the orchestra a tad distant) and both Klein and Freeman seem more comfortable. The latter’s tight, crisp accompaniment leaves the soloist free to soar through the “Moderato’s” infectious lines and play off the wonderfully “nervoso” piano backdrops in the “Poco Andante.”
The Poco Allegro is a tour de force, jam-packed with ostinato, jazz and a heady cadenza. The entire work is magical in its compactness of ideas and forever memorable in its wide emotional spectrum.
The same cannot be said for Sydor’s Virtuti Militari. Aurally, it features a magnificent soundscape—ghostly violins, much metallic and bombastic percussion and a few carefully inserted “snaps” that summon the oboe-as-protagonist to action. But the frequent shifts come across as disjointed rather than part of a sound structural scheme.
Still, Klein is the ideal “unknown soldier” and howls, squawks and sears through the score with integrity and conviction. Freeman follows or leads as required, building the tension, sensing the desperation and sculpting near-perfect ensemble. Klein has the final word and uses his last gasp to utter the deathly cry with unwavering pitch and an unforgettable sense of closure.
The closing work serves both as memoriam to its composer (Yano succumbed to brain cancer before completing the work for Klein) and testament to the creativity and determination of people living with disabilities. Klein’s generous program notes (both discs are well-served by their annotators) give the detail of how the work was realized; suffice it to say that this labour of love-and-life had many able hands crafting the music.
The inclusion of a synthesizer is remarkable in its “other-worldliness,” as if Yano were speaking through a medium, even today. As always, Klein is up to the considerable technical challenges, tossing off buckets of frantic notes, baskets of trills and demonstrating what must be circular breathing in the wind equivalent of Perpetuum Mobile.
Following the considerable angst of In Memoriam, the remaining movements, “Seresta” and “Frevo,” reveal much of Yano’s Brazilian influences (particularly melody and orchestration). They are remarkable in their visual components: more perceived than realized, as though a dream or distant memory. The ballade-like theme, which follows the solo oboe declamations of the middle frame, brings to mind the very best efforts of filmmaker James Ivory (Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day et al). Yet the loving lines, haunting accompaniment and underlying near-saccharine chord selection seem as incomplete as Yano’s promise. Lush melancholy moments also break up the finale’s rhythmic punch, effectively foiling the unrelenting drive of the soloist, Freeman and his intrepid band. A whistle halts the chaos, then Klein and the synthetic voice whisper ever so briefly before a full-out Elgarian/Hollywood ending and one last mad dash bring this luminous essay to a resounding finish.
Yano’s approach to development through colour and imagery (unlike his classical counterparts) offers more “Uh huh!” than “Aha!” to its listeners. Filmmakers take notice—this material deserves the big screen. JWR