Four examples of late-18th Century chamber music for oboe (or English horn) and strings have turned up on a new Denon digitally recorded disc (OX-7185-ND), and all of them are as delicious as they ae little-known.
Heinz Holliger, surely today's out-standing practitioner of the oboist's art, recorded these pieces in Tokyo last November in the company of violinst Antonio Salvatore, violist Massimo Paris, cellist Vito Peternoste and double-bassist Lucio Buccarella. From the looks of the session photos, they all enjoyed digging up this material, and anyone who hears the disc will surely be glad they did.
The one relatively familiar time here is the shortest of the four, the Adagio in C major for English horn, violin, viola and cello (K. 580a) which Mozart began writing in 1789, at about the same time he composed his magnificent Clarinet Quintet. Actually, Mozart completed only the English horn part of this adagio and wrote out only about a third of the string parts; the remainder was filled in a good deal later by more than one musician. The performance here follows an edition by Edward Lowinsky. The piece is usually played with two violins instead of one violin and a viola, but that point seems to matter little.
The opening of the Adagio resembles that of the well-known motet "Ave Verum Corpus" (K. 618) which Mozart composed two years later; he may indeed done a bit of borrowing from himself, salvaging the theme of his unfinished chamber work. In any event, the performance here is a lovely one, even if Hollinger does seem to be focused just a mite too close.
The other three works in this collection are not only more extended but much more lively and outgoing. Two are by Joseph Haydn's younger brother Michael: a Divertimento in C major for oboe, viola and double bass (p. 98), and a Quartet in the same key for English horn, violin, cello and double bass (P. 111). As in just about all of Michael Haydn's instrumental works known to us, the predominant character in both of these is one of ingratiating geniality, with the melodic directness of popular music and effective contrasts in mood from one movement to the next (six movements in the Divertimento, three in the Quartet).
Finally, there is a two-movement Quartet in B-Flat for oboe, violin, viola and cello by Johann Christian Bach. This is not one of Christian's well-known works, but one discovered by Arnold Dolmetsch early in the present century and originally attributed by him to Joseph Haydn. Christian's music makes him the most lovable of all Bach's sons, and this little Quartet is fully up to the standard of the celebrated Op. 11 quintets for winds and strings.
I cannot readily recall a happier little surprise package in the realm of lightweight chamber music. The freshness, color and uncomplicated charm of these four works make them handsome companions for each other, and these qualities do not seem to fade with repeated exposures. All in all, an enchanting release, alike for the music itself, the superb performances and the incredibly lifelike recording.
Collectors who develop an appetite for more in this vein from Michael Haydn may be directed to Musical Heritage Society MHS 861 -- by no means a new, or even recent release, but one that has not had a lot of attention since it appeared in 1968. Here we have the Biedermeier Chamber Ensemble of Vienna Playing Michael's Divertimento in B-flat for oboe, bassoon, violin, viola and double bass (P. 92), and his Quintet in E-flat for clarinet, horn ( corno da caccia in this case), bassoon, violin and viola (P. 111). The former is an especially endearing piece with bucolic accents, the latter a delightful eight-movement sequence with an infectious Polonese and Tedeschi is its high points. Performances are spirited, the sound is quite good, and this is definitely worth the trouble of ordering by mail.