New Classical Tracks

New Classical Tracks - Bach's Oboe

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
August 9, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — For decades, Heinz Holliger has been perhaps the leading oboist in the world. But for Holliger, composing came before playing the oboe, and in the last ten years he's been doing more conducting. "For me music is a unity," he explains. Holliger enjoys wearing various hats, much like Johann Sebastian Bach did in the 1700's. His latest recording is a collection of lost works by Bach which have been reconstructed as showpieces for the oboe.

English oboist Evelyn Rothwell (Barbirolli) once dubbed Holliger the "Paganini of the Oboe," because, she said, "he opened doors that none of us had ever thought of knocking on." Holliger denies being a technical pioneer. He claims he just took his instrument seriously. He views the oboe as a grown-up instrument, not as a limited tool, so he forces it to do everything in his head. These works by Bach give Holliger plenty of opportunity to show off his abilities. Ever since a German musicologist revealed that several keyboard works by Bach originated as wind pieces that have since been lost, several scholars have reconstructed those works. The best-known of all the recovered concertos by Bach is probably the double concerto for violin and oboe. In its surviving form, we know it as the Double Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C minor, and Holliger and the Swiss chamber ensemble Camerata Bern play their version in the same key. The slow movement of this concerto is pure, unadulterated beauty. Holliger's warm, inviting tone and elegant phrasing lures Erich Hobarth's violin into the delicate musical fabric.

The title of this recording, "Ich hatte viel Bekummernis," which translates as "I Was Much Beset by Care," reflects the deep emotional atmosphere of these pieces, and the heartfelt performances. Holliger dedicated this album to his brother and to a friend, both of whom died around the time Holliger was working on this recording. The title comes from the largest of Bach's sacred cantatas. It was written to mark the death of a young prince, who was also one of Bach's favorite students. It journeys through the darkness of grief, to the brightness of hope. This recording opens with the Sinfonia from this cantata. The violins provide a wreath of comfort for the oboe's grieving chromatic melody.

There are also two works on this recording which Heinz Holliger has recorded before: Bach's famous transcription of the Oboe Concerto in d minor by his contemporary Alessandro Marcello, and Bach's own A Major Concerto for Oboe d'Amore. Holliger first recorded this A Major concerto in 1965, and again around 1985. He describes the oboe d'amore as a deeper, gentler companion to the oboe and he takes full advantage of the instrument's rich characteristics producing a creamy, effortless tone. Without a real physical feeling of a phrase, Holliger says you can't create the sound you want. You have to feel it in your body. Holliger's graceful phrasing in the final allegro of the A Major Concerto helps make the music dance.

For the past five decades Heinz Holliger has increased the exposure of the oboe by continuously opening new doors. Since the 1960's he's been exploring libraries around the world and discovered hundreds of forgotten works, many of which he's since recorded and published. Whether he likes to believe it or not, Heinz Holliger is a musical pioneer. His new recording of reconstructed lost works by Bach is one more feather in his many hats.

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