Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Mozart Oboe Quartet and More

Proof of purchase.
Since my Wolfgang Rihm foray a couple of years ago, my classical music acquisitions have been sparse.  I feel my collection is fairly complete according to my tastes and will likely only add sporadically to it in the coming years.  I made one recent purchase, however, that shows how you can never really cease to fine-tune your music collection if you take such things genuinely.

Before now I did not possess any oboe quartets in my collection of hundreds of classical CDs. The oboe competes with the clarinet as my favorite classical wind instrument.  I own a few excellent oboe concertos by various composers as diverse as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Rihm.  The oboe shines in a few scattered compositions, such as Mozart’s brilliant Serenade for 12 wind instruments (1781).  George Fredric Handel also composed three wonderful sonatas for oboe (from around 1710) which I own.

But the oboe quartet has gone unrepresented in my collection until now.  I suppose the juxtaposition of a string trio (violin, viola, and cello) with an oboe to form a quartet is historically more of an academic exercise than a requested, commissioned work of music.   But, for many years now, I have heard Mozart’s Oboe Quartet (also from 1781) over classical radio stations.  I finally decided to purchase this lively, splendid work on a CD dating from 2005 by the Christy Oboe Quartet.

Being specialists (obviously) in the field of oboe chamber music, the Christy Quartet presents on this CD an marvelous evolution of the art form from its baroque beginnings to a 21st century composition.  The four composers featured on this CD are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Christian Bach (the 11th son of the great Johann Sebastian), Benjamin Britten, and contemporary composer James Stephenson.  

Mozart’s quartet came in the middle of his short but prolific life, at age 25. J.C. Bach composed his quartet in 1772 at age 37, though it is marked as Opus 8 in his body of work, indicating that it is a relatively early piece, it might have been composed years before it was published.  Britten’s composition was in 1932, very early in his successful career, designated Opus 2 when he was only 19.  Finally, Stephenson’s quartet dates from 2003 when was 34.  In other words, rare as they are, oboe quartets seem generally written either as early experiments or as the middle fleshing out of musical style, at least as presented on this CD.

As I said, the Mozart quartet is a treat I have enjoyed for many years without owning it.  It is the only three-movement piece on the CD lasting collectively a little over 14 minutes. This music is smart and lively and optimistic.  The Allegro is very ear-catching to me and one reason the quartet has been recognized as a favorite for so long now. The Adagio is uninteresting but pensive enough.  The Rondeau: Allegro begins as a formal dance soon transformed into sultry, wonderful touch of the mysterious then back to formality with folk music this time.  As a whole, a favored piece of classical music.  Now part of my collection.

There is another Mozart moment on the CD. Between the Britten piece and the Stephenson there is an posthumously discovered unfinished fragment of music by Mozart, an Adagio, but this time more interesting than the one in the quartet. It is pastoral, comfortable, easy.  So light and delicate, even unfinished it runs well over six minutes of wonderful composition.  A real treat for me on this CD.

J.C. Bach actually tutored young Wolfgang when the student was eight years old.  Bach’s two-movement piece Opus 8 quartet is interesting. The splendid Largo is in lush baroque style. Yet, the Allegro con spirito, rounding out this 10-pulse minute piece, sounds more romantic than baroque and is an example of how advanced J.C. Bach became in a compositional style transcending his father’s and his own baroque tradition.

The Britten Phantasy Quartet, Opus 2, represents the young artist experimenting with simple juxtapositions. It is thoroughly modern and a striking contrast to the other music so far mentioned.  This is more brooding and seriously contemplative music with sharp, sometimes anxious, sometimes fantastic undertones. The oboe is powerful and easily contains the trio in alternating contemporary, driving discord with strong dance type music. The strings are often plucked through the beginning of the quartet. Then there is a slow portion to this 13 and a half minute continuous movement which is highly romantic without sentimentality, featuring various wonderful solos by all four instruments in turn. The fantasy ends with a kind of proud march which gradually falls apart in pacing and ultimately isolates the instruments in moments of silence and soft playing which gradually fades away. Really a fine listening experience.

I have never heard of James Stephenson until this record. His 13 and a half minute Oboe Quartet is distinctively contemporary but without dissonance, just sophisticated, at times melodic, at times urgent. His slow building use of the string trio in the beginning reminds me of Bela Bartok’s string compositions.  This composition, which really features the string trio while casting the oboe in a solid, supporting role. At times there is an outlandish, macabre feel to this movement.  He tacks on a brief finale to give the piece a formal conclusion and is more interesting than the 10-minute theme and variations movement.  This is highly accessible modern music, competent but not particularly remarkable.

I am very pleased with this CD.  I have listened to it several times in the past few weeks and it holds up well.  There is so much musical expertise and variety of style on this unique record that it seems almost essential to any classical music collection.

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