Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger, who played here with the Minnesota Orchestra on Saturday night, is a mere 42, but he is well on the way to establishing himself as a Rampal of the oboe. Like his senior French peer of the flute and like Barry Tuckwell with his horn, Holliger has now rendered doubts about the viability of a solo career on the dark and reedy oboe to be exaggerated--at least when played with his virtuosity.
The greatest potential impediment is the music itself. Those most grand symphonic creations for the instrument--like the opening of the Brahms violin concerto's slow movement--do not lend themselves to solo excerpting. So Holliger has followed the Rampal lead, choosing revivals of the enormous baroque and early romantic chamber repertory and vigorously commissioning works from today's composers.
There was one of each Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. And perhaps there is some comfort in the fact that the stronger of the two was the newly commissioned one: Witold Lutoslawski's Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Chamber Orchestra, a 1980 composition first performed in this country by the same forces only last month in Minneapolis (the harpist is Ursula Holliger, Heinz Holliger's wife).
Those who think of the oboe as just a melancholy lyric sound in a minor key would have been taken aback, as Holliger brought forth feats of breathing and articulation suggesting the digital prowess of Horowitz. Notes cascaded at you in double and triple tonguings, the sound was big and almost as rich as you might hear from a solo violin. No wonder there was a standing ovation when Holliger finished playing.
As to the music, heretical as it may sound, Lutoslawski's works keep reminding at least one listener most of all of Shostakovich, as the Russian might have written had he been Polish and a generation later--with lots of Cagian percussion and harmless touches of music of chance. Yet the music harks back to Shostakovich, and at times to Bartok, by being intensely expressive, full of grim wit, scored in rich sonorities and tightly crafted. If there is a serious flaw it is one that also shows sometimes in Shostakovich--that is, if the work breaks down into A-B-C, how is it that C necessarily flows from A? The packaging may just be a little too neat.
Holliger's weaker work was the 19th-century introduction, theme and variations of Mozart's pupil Hummel. This music makes Salieri sound substantive.
One should not assume that Holliger's accomplishment overshadowed the work of the Minnesota Orchestra and its music director, Neville Marriner.
This splendid ensemble did not quite have the polish in Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony that Marriner gets from his Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. But the playing was gutsier, especially in the last movements.
No such comparison is necessary for the concluding Sibelius Fifth Symphony. Marriner and the orchestra played with greater clarity and earthy vitality than one has heard in this work in a long time. The sensuousness that one sometimes expects may occasionally have been a little short, but it may have been a blessing--resulting in a sound closer than usual to Sibelius' craggy vision of nature and civilization in conflict.