J.S. Bach: Concertos for Oboe and Oboe d'amore (CD review)

Gonzalo X Ruiz, baroque oboes; Monica Huggett, Portland Baroque Orchestra. Avie Records AV2324.

Here's the thing: Nobody knows for sure if Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote any concertos for oboe; all original manuscripts are missing. But musical scholars believe that he probably did, later transcribing them for harpsichord. Thus, what we have on this disc are three concertos for oboe and one for oboe d'amore reconstructed from harpsichord concertos. Interesting: concertos reconstructed from what are probably transcriptions. I guess it's what makes musical scholarship so fascinating.

The star of the show is Gonzalo X. Ruiz, who is among America's premier period-instruments oboists. For the past twenty years he has been a member of the Portland Baroque Orchestra, and he has performed as principal soloist with most of the world's leading baroque orchestras, including Philharmonia Baroque, Ensemble Sonnerie, The English Concert, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and many others. He has made dozen of albums, been nominated for a Grammy, appeared just about everywhere, been appointed to the faculty of The Juilliard School, and taught at Oberline Conservatory, the Longy School, Yale, Harvard, and Indiana Universities. He's also an expert in reed design, and some of his work is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the present album Ruiz appears as soloist with the Portland Baroque Orchestra and Monica Huggett, Artistic Director and First Violin. Things begin with the Concerto for oboe in G minor, BWV 1056R, a reconstruction of the Concerto in F minor for Harpsichord, BWV 1056. Next is the Concerto for oboe in F major, BWV 1053R, a reconstruction of the Concerto in E major for Harpsichord, BWV 1053. Then, we get the Concerto for oboe in D minor, BWV 1059R, a reconstruction based on a concerto fragment and Cantatas 35 and 156.

The Portland Baroque Orchestra play at a lively pace, yet they never sound frenetic (as some "historically oriented" orchestras can sound). Tempos always appear well chosen for the music, with good spring in the rhythms and suitably judged contrasts throughout. Equally important, Ruiz's playing is smooth and graceful (note particularly the famous Adagio in 1059R), the oboe sounding surprisingly rich and mellow considering it's a period instrument. I was a little afraid it might sound coarse or raspy compared to a modern oboe, but not so. Perhaps Ruiz's mellifluous playing and his careful reed construction have a lot to do with the pleasing results.

Gonzalo Ruiz
After those three items we come to the Concerto for oboe d'amore in A major, BWV 1055R, a reconstruction of the Concerto in A major for Harpsichord, BWV 1055. The oboe d'amore ("oboe of love") is a little larger than a standard oboe, its sound a little fuller and deeper. It conveys a sweetly romantic tone, especially in the slow Larghetto movement, with Ruiz nudging it along lovingly.

The program's penultimate work is the real highlight of the show, the Concerto for Violin and oboe in C minor, BWV 1060R, a reconstruction of the Concerto in C minor for Two Harpsichords, BWV 1060. Here, Ms. Huggett joins Ruiz on violin. The interweaving of the two instruments is delightfully affecting, the violin taking the more active part in the fast first and third movements, the oboe handling the more lyrical accompaniment. The oboe comes into its own in the central Adagio, where Ruiz's playing is totally charming.

The program ends with the little Aria from Cantata 51, transcribed for oboe. It offers a fitting conclusion, with Ruiz making the oboe sing in heavenly voice.

Producers Thomas Cirillo, Gonzalo X. Ruiz, and Stephen Schultz and engineer Roderick Evenson recorded the music at St. Anne's Chapel, Marylhurst University, Marylhurst, Oregon in October 2013. Various of the pieces use different instrumentation, some producing a fuller, more robust sound than others; but in every case the sonics are nicely spacious, warm, and open, the ambient environment of the recording venue pleasantly in evidence, yet without drowning out the orchestra in reverberation. Instead, the sound is fully dimensional, with a good sense of depth and breadth and plenty of air around the instruments. Detailing and definition also appear quite good, as do dynamics and frequency range. While the dynamics aren't exceptionally wide, they are appropriate to the occasion. This is a natural-sounding recording that makes listening a pleasure.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa