THE OBOE has never been subjected to the rude musical jokes inflicted on the bassoon, but it is the victim of a description that sounds so felicitous that people pass it on without inquiring too closely into its accuracy: "An ill wind that no one blows good." Not true, of course; there is nobility in this instrument's remote past (Shakespeare, who called them "hautboys," always had a few on call for flourishes when he staged a royal entry), and a decent sobriety, a classical decorum, a wistful sense of fragile, evanescent beauty in its role in classical music. More subtle and reliable than the brilliant treacherous brass, more restrained than the schizophrenic clarinet, more decorous than the Pagliacciesque bassoon, it could claim to be the least ill of all the winds. And, as the records briefly noted below indicate, there are some performers who blow it very good indeed.
ERNST KRENEK: Four Pieces for oboe and piano. CHARLES WUORINEN: Composition for oboe and piano. LAWRENCE MOSS: Unseen Leaves for oboe, soprano and electronic tape. James Ostryniek, oboe; Ernst Krenek, piano; Charles Wuorinen, piano; Ruth Drucker, soprano (Orion ORS 78228). The composers of the 20th century began to realize that small is beautiful long before most other people, and one result has been a rebirth of music for the oboe, which had been a popular solo instrument in the 18th century but was submerged in the passion for bigness that engulfed so much music in the 19th.
Ostryniek, the assistant principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony and a specialist in contemporary music for his instrument, last year recorded Krenek's Aulokithara for oboe, harp and taped soundtrack as part of a record (Orion ORS 76246) devoted entirely to varied works of that inventive, underappreciated composer. It is a strangely beautiful composition, one of relatively few that have made a significantly musical (as opposed to spectacular) use of electronic sounds, and clearly it earned Ostyniek the right to be featured on an album all his own.
The resulting disc, now available, is brilliant both technically and musically. It will appeal to a rather specialized taste - for the sound (the many sounds) of the oboe and for post-Schoenbergian structures - but it offers an uncommonly appealing way to build such a taste. All three composers experiment in the production of sounds not usually associated with the instrument, but more important is the fact that they use these innovations in an artistically communicative way. For those who are not hard-core modernists, the most effective work to begin with is probably the Moss Unseen Leaves , a very dramatic setting of two Walt Whitman poems by a composer who has lightened some of the extreme complexity found in his earlier works but still maintains a very high level of intensity. Aulokithara on the earlier record also offers easier access, in some ways, than the more austere beauty of the Krenek and Wuorinen pieces on the new disc. But all of this music rewards attentive and repeated hearings.
For an "easy listening" introduction to the modern use of the oboe and other woodwinds, I recommend an open-reel tape from Barclay Corker (11 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10004). Drawn from a Musical Heritage master, the tape (MHS C 3187) features four compositions by Poulenc and Villa-Lobos, two composers whose basically lyric instincts were linked to special feelings for woodwinds. The sound, particularly in the Villa-Lobos Duo for oboe and bassoon, is the most satisfying commercial reproduction of woodwind sound in my listening experience.
HANDLE: Three Oboe Concerts; Concerts Grosso in G, Op. 3 No. 3. Sonata a 5 for violin and strings. Heinz Holliger, oboe; Kenneth Sillito, violin; English Chamber Orchestra, Raymond Leppard, conductor (Philips 6500 240).HANDEL: Sonatas for oboe and continuo, Op. 1 No. 6 in G minor and 8 in C minor; Trio Sonatas No. 2 in D minor and 3 in E-flat. Ronald Roseman and Virginia Brewer, oboes; Donald MacCourt, bassoon; Timothy Eddy, cello; Edward Brewer, harpsichord (None-such H-71339). These two discs provide a well-rounded look at the contribution of Handel to the 18th-century glorification of the oboe - which was, in large measure, really a glorification of melody. The Opus 1 sonatas, for example, are best-known as music for violin, and can also be played (as the Concerto, Op. 3 No. 3 more often is) with a flute as the featured instrument. But the special woody tone of the oboe gives the music an added charm that is (at least for ardent collectors) strong enough to justify getting more than one version of the music.
The Nonesuch record is superbly played and recorded and can be recommended wholeheartedly without further discussion. The Philips is slightly more problematic, although Holliger plays the oboe part splendidly. This is partly because of the conductor, partly because of the price. Leppard's ideas on what Handel meant by "Allegro" vary significantly from one movement to another, and he indulges in an occasional slow pace that has the effect of sentimentalizing the music - an effect that no doubt many listeners will enjoy. His orchestra is excellent, but in the Opus 3 piece 1 prefer the recording by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Argo, largely because of George Malcolm's very creative improvisations at the harpsichord. And I should advise thrifty collectors that for half the price of this import they can acquire a Vanguard record (HM-40) that has two of the Handel concerti as well as works of Mozart and Albinoni in performances that are almost as good.
MOZART: Oboe Concerto in C, K. 314; Flute Concerto in G, K. 313; Andante for flute and orchestra in C. K. 315. Maurice Bourgue, oboe; Michel Debost, flute; Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim, conductor (Angei S-37269). The solo playing is excellent on this disc and the music is heavenly, but Mozart's love affair with the oboe (and love-hate relationship with the flute) is better documented elsewhere. The problem is the orchestra, which is rapidly building both its expertise and its reputation but has yet to demonstrate any special affinity for Mozart.