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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa