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Sonatas for Oboe BWV 1020, 1030b, 1031, 1033, etc.

Gail Hennessy (Oboe); Nicholas Parle (Harpsichord)

Review: Music for Oboe and Harpsichord

H-1

J.S. Bach: Music for Oboe and Harpsichord

Trio Sonata for organ No. 5 in C major, BWV 529 [13:55]
WTC 2: Prelude and Fugue, for keyboard No. 2 in C minor, BWV 871 [6:32]
Sonata for violin & keyboard in G minor, BWV 1020 [12:16]
Sonata for oboe & keyboard in G minor, BWV 1030R [17:34]
Sonata for flute & keyboard in E flat major, BWV 1031 [10:53]
Sonata for flute & keyboard in C major, BWV 1033 [9:28]

Gail Hennessey (Baroque Oboe); Nicholas Parle (Harpsichord)

Signum Records UK

Dec 2000

CD / TT: 68:39

Recorded at St. Andrews Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire, England.
Buy this album at: Amazon.com

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 9, 2001):
This recording contains an interesting selection of works for oboe and harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach. Not all of them were written for these instruments; the performers have arranged some other works to suit them. The G minor sonata, a challenging work, is most likely for oboe, even though it exists only in score for the flute. And, with the exception of the Trio Sonata for organ, the other works are not even necessarily by Bach. As with several of his chamber music works, his authorship is not proven.

Nevertheless, the music on this disc is indeed interesting. One high point is the performance for solo oboe of the flute sonata in C major. Yet this, too, is an arrangement - Gail Hennessy has removed the basso continuo and plays this alone, under the theory that Bach originally wrote it as an unaccompanied piece. It works relatively well in this manner, although the oboe is not an instrument that naturally lends itself to solo performances.

Overall, this disc has one major weakness: the balance between the oboe and harpsichord is such that the keyboard part is often masked. The music was recorded with the oboe at centre stage, and the harpsichord somewhat in the background. This is especially noticeable in the Trio Sonata, where the harpsichord plays two of the three voices. In addition, Hennessy’s instrument does not always have the nicest tone - it can be harsh and abrasive in the higher register at strong volumes. This gives the recording a somewhat uncomfortable feeling.

This is indeed odd, because a few months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing another disc by Signum which was recorded in a totally opposite manner. The recording of Bach¹s sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, by Alison Crum and Laurence Cummings, is brilliant for its recording. I wrote, “Most recordings of these sonatas feature the harpsichord in a very subservient role - the gamba dominates, and the harpsichord goes about its business in the background. Here, the harpsichord and gamba are both on the same plane - after all, in the first two sonatas, which are really trio sonatas, the harpsichord is playing two-thirds of the music. This is a very gutsy choice, on the part of the performers and/or the producer; yet it is entirely judicious.” Alas, here I am very disappointed that the same label did not use the same style of recording. This would have compensated for the other weaknesses on this disc.

This is an interesting disc, and one that is certainly unique. The music is quite attractive, but the recording puts the harpsichord too much in the background, giving a lack of balance that is unattractive. Unfortunately, this original disc does not have enough qualities to recommend it.

 

Feedback to the Review

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 10, 2001):
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< Sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b
[Andante] [8:07], Siciliano [3:34], Presto-[Gigue] [5:53]
(...)
This recording contains an interesting selection of works for oboe and harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach. Not all of them were written for these instruments; the performers have arranged some other works to suit them. The G minor sonata, a challenging work, is most likely for oboe, even though it exists only in score for the flute. >
To clarify this: the B minor version (flute and harpsichord) is the original.

But in the German State Library, Berlin, there also exists a later copy of the harpsichord part alone: by one of CPE Bach's anonymous copyists, who transposed it to G minor and changed some of the details. That version does not say what the missing melody instrument is supposed to be; it simply says "Trio."

Modern editors and players have assigned this to the oboe, since the melodic range works OK and oboists are eager to have some solo Bach to play, like everybody else. The Litolff/Peters edition 8118 by Raymond Meylan claims to be the first of these reconstruction editions, dated 1972. That's the edition that an oboist gave me to use when we played this in October.

This editor (and perhaps others as well) also copied out an optional part for cello or viola da gamba, which is a good idea: it strengthens the bass line in melodic direction and volume, and it helps the harpsichord's right-hand line to stand out as a distinctive sound. In the outer two movements all three lines of the composition are equal in importance. The right hand is given some chords to play here and there, but not as many as in the B minor version: the G minor version is simpler.

The middle movement is a nice example of a written-out continuo realization: with the types of ideas that Bach would expect the harpsichordist to improvise in the accompaniment of a soloist. (Then, of course, if harpsichordists play that notated part so stiffly and literally that it no longer sounds like an improvisation, it misses the point, but that's another issue. Should one be faithful to the notes exactly as given, or try to feel Bach's intentions behind them, letting the music be free and beautiful? I choose the latter, with improvisations that only occasionally line up with the notes given here....)

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 10, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Most of these same pieces are on a nicely done 1993 Amon Ra disc: SAR 60 by Robin Canter (Baroque oboe) and Paul Nicholson (harpsichord).

They play the BWV 1030b (G minor), 1031 (Eb), and 1020 (G minor) sonatas, plus 1027 in G.

I got one for a very low price at Berkshire's web site, www.broinc.com .

Juozas Rimas wrote (December 11, 2001):
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< oboe is not an instrument that naturally lends itself to solo performances. >
A ridiculous sentence.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 12, 2001):
[To Juozas Rimas] Why?

Juozas Rimas wrote (December 12, 2001):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Because the oboe is by no means a worse solo instrument than the flute - something I feel the author of the sentence couldn't agree with. Even if a work is originally written for the flute, it may sound as good if not better on the oboe - take Telemann's flute fantasias that are often played on the oboe. Most Bach's flute works also cannot suffer from being played on the oboe with a plausible approach.

Playing violin pieces on the guitar is a much more severe transcription than playing flute works on the oboe.

Donald Satz wrote (December 12, 2001):
[To Juozas Rimas] I don't think it reasonable to possess the premise that one instrument lends itself more to solo performance than another. Just depends on personal preference.

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 12, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] ...except in the case of clavichord, where solo is pretty much the only way to have it be audible. :)

Bagpipes present the opposite problem: they're typically so loud that they can be played only with other bagpipes and drums, and outdoors.

And I have a reed organ whose pitch is odd enough that it's hard for any other instrument to tune to it adequately. Ditto for some folk instruments like primitive flutes.

But among more typically orchestral instruments, I agree with you thasuitability to solo performance is personal preference. The melodic instruments, anyway, not things like bass drums.

Remember Martin Short's comedy character Ed Grimley, triangle soloist?

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 13, 2001):
Juozas Rimas wrote:
< Because the oboe is by no means a worse solo instrument than the flute - something I feel the author of the sentence couldn't agree with. Even if a work is originally written for the flute, it may sound as good if not better on the oboe - take Telemann's flute fantasias that are often played on the oboe. Most Bach's flute works also cannot suffer from being played on the oboe with a plausible approach. >
Well, I'm not sure I agree. The oboe is a beautiful instrument in an orchestra, but it can be a bit grating solo. That's probably why there is hardly any solo oboe music written.

< Playing violin pieces on the guitar is a much more severe transcription than playing flute works on the oboe. >
I disagree again. It's a question of sound. The guitar has a full sound,
that is, it covers a wide range and is polyphonic. The oboe does not.

Philip Peters wrote (December 13, 2001):
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< Well, I'm not sure I agree. The oboe is a beautiful instrument in an orchestra, but it can be a bit grating solo. That's probably why there is hardly any solo oboe music written. >
But there are a lot of beautful oboe concertos from baroque times to the present. As for Bach: the cantatas have many amazing duets (one would almost say) between soprano and oboe. I recently bought a disc devoted to those and performed by the Dutch sisters Nienke (soprano) and Pauline (oboe) Oostenrijk. Not bad at all. My favourite cantata for this combination is BWV 84 (Ich bin vergught in meinem Glucke) as recorded by Ehmann with the great Agnes Giebel and none other than Helmut Winschermann playing the oboe.

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 13, 2001):
Kirk McElhearn stated:
< The oboe is a beautiful instrument in an orchestra, but it can be a bit grating solo. That's probably why there is hardly any solo oboe music written. >
If I understand this statement correctly, you mean truly solo-solo oboe with absolutely no other accompaniment present. This is what I thought you may have had in mind. I can not think of any music in that category except those pieces written specifically for practice purposes. Regarding the oboe accompanied by a harpsichord, I have frequently seen and played the bc for Baroque compositions which claim to allow for the solo part to be played by either a violin, flute, or oboe. This, of course, is very suspicious and comparable to the original publication of an early Beethoven piano sonata which claims that it is also for harpsichord.

The question here is, whether the composition was characteristically written for the oboe and not for any other instrument. Bach understood so well the characteristics of the oboe, that when he used this instrument in a solo capacity with other instruments in an orchestra, substituting a violin or flute for the same part, although either can easily play all the notes, will cause an attentive and knowledgable listener to note the lack of characteristic writing for either the violin or flute. Those compositions, mainly Baroque, that allow for interchangeble instruments tend to be less interesting musically. Bach is the exception here because his music has greater depth and so much of his music is also written in such a way that it can be interchangeable. But when Bach wrote a solo part for the oboe, it could not be easily interchanged with another instrument without losing something through the substitution of one instrument for the other. Compare Bach with Telemann and you will hear the difference. Telemann admitted that his heart simply was not 'in it' as he composed a number of solo sonatas for a virtuoso oboist [somewhat like Mozart writing for the 'solo' flute in flute concerti and the like.] Buxtehude included the oboe only once in all of his cantatas, but this oboe part was completely devoid of any characteristic oboe writing and could easily have been played by almost any other instrument in the same range. It was the 18th century, however, that favored and also produced the best 'solo' parts for the oboe and other members of the oboe family. In comparison, the 19th century produced very little by any notable composers.

The 'grating' quality, sometimes also referred to as too shrill and nasal, [I have never played any instrument in the oboe family, and what I report here comes from personal observations) can sometimes be due to the reed quality, the construction of the instrument, and the technique used in playing the instrument. Now let me really go out on a limb here and suggest the existence of a distinct difference between French-style instruments and their players and those of other European cultures, German, English, etc. When I hear a performance by a French reed ensemble, it sounds more brilliant with an emphasis on nasality and the high reedy, thin quality is emphasized, whereas instruments and players from other countries in Europe may tend to have a less brilliant, round sound. In a large 20th century orchestra I do not mind the French style being used, but with an intimate Baroque orchestra, the French style is too strident for my ears and I would rather hear the round, warm tone of the opposing style of reed instrument.

Perhaps the real question here is whether the artist is playing a 'historically-informed' instrument in a 'historically-informed' manner when accompanied by a harpsichord. In such a situation, I would prefer the opposite of the brilliant 'French' sound' to avoid the possibility of a 'grating' sound.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 14, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Reviews are all about personal preference. Perhaps it is because the specific oboe sounds very shrill, and does not have that soft, subtle sound that the instrument should.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 14, 2001):
[To Philip Peters] I certainly agree. In fact, those arias are among my favorites in the cantatas.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 14, 2001):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< The oboe is a beautiful instrument in an orchestra, but it can be a bit grating solo. That's probably why there is hardly any solo oboe music written. If I understand this statement correctly, you mean truly solo-solo oboe with absolutely no other accompaniment present. >
Exactly.

< This is what I thought you may have had in mind. I can not think of any music in that category except those pieces written specifically for practice purposes. Regarding the oboe accompanied by a harpsichord, I have frequently seen and played the bc for Baroque compositions which claim to allow for the solo part to be played by either a violin, flute, or oboe. This, of course, is very suspicious and comparable to the original publication of an early Beethoven piano sonata which claims that it is also for harpsichord. >
Beethoven's early sonatas were indeed marked for pianoforte or harpsichord. I have seen images of covers of these scores.

< The question here is, whether the composition was characteristically written for the oboe and not for any other instrument. Bach understood so well the characteristics of the oboe, that when he used this instrument in a solo capacity with other instruments in an orchestra, substituting a violin or flute for the same part, although either can easily play all the notes, will cause an attentive and knowledgable listener to note the lack of characteristic writing for either the violin or flute. Those compositions, mainly Baroque, that allow for interchangeble instruments tend to be less interesting musically. >
Not only that, the piece in question is only the flute part of a sonata for flute and harpsichord. So the solo wind part is divorced from its accompaniment.

< The 'grating' quality, sometimes also referred to as too shrill and nasal, [I have never played any instrument in the oboe family, and what I report here comes from personal observations) can sometimes be due to the reed quality, the construction of the instrument, and the technique in playing the instrument. Now let me really go out on a limb here and suggest the existence of a distinct difference between French-style instruments and their players and those of other European cultures, German, English, etc. When I hear a performance by a French reed ensemble, it sounds more brilliant with an emphasis on nasality and the high reedy, thin quality is emphasized, whereas instruments and players from other countries in Europe may tend to have a less brilliant, round sound. In a large 20th century orchestra I do not mind the French style being used, but with an intimate Baroque orchestra, the French style is too strident for my ears and I would rather hear the round, warm tone of the opposing style of reed instrument.
Perhaps the real question here is whether the artist is playing a 'historically-informed' instrument in a 'historically-informed' manner when accompanied by a harpsichord. In such a situation, I would prefer the opposite of the brilliant 'French' sound' to avoid the possibility of a 'grating' sound. >
I agree.

Riccardo Nughes wrote (December 14, 2001):
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< Beethoven's early sonatas were indeed marked for pianoforte or harpsichord. I have seen images of covers of these scores. >
I've read somewhere that they were marked for pianoforte & harpsichord because the latest was still present in many houses and so the scores should be sold more easily. Is this true?

Bradley Lehman wrote (December 15, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes] Larry Palmer's excellent book Harpsichord in America starts with several pages surveying the continuing use of the harpsichord well into the 19th century in Europe.

For example, Giuseppe Verdi learned music on a spinet harpsichord in the 1820s, and Rossini used harpsichords in his operas until at least 1816. When Mendelssohn and his friend Devrient brought Bach's SMP to their teacher in 1829 (bringing the idea to revive this music), they met him at his harpsichord. Liszt's "Petrarch Sonnets" were published in 1846 with harpsichord and piano both mentioned on the title page.

"Throughout the nineteenth century the harpsichord remained a household instrument in some out-of-the-way communities" ...and Palmer then gives an example from an English cleric's diary, 1870.

(I strongly recommend this book. It was the single most useful historical survey that I studied in preparation for my doctoral exams...plus it's written in a style that is a delight to read, for fun.)

There still exist households that have a harpsichord and no piano.

Another household keyboard that never really died out is the simplest and least expensive: the clavichord. Whether or not the stories about Bach's preference for it are true, it's still the best instrument for practicing perfect fingering and really learning the music well. One has to be thoroughly controlled and intentional about everything, totally prepared, because the clavichord doesn't forgive any sloppy thought or stray fingerwork.

-----

Personally, the biggest problem I have in practicing Beethoven on the harpsichord is that my harpsichord goes up to only d''' at the top, while most of early Beethoven needs the e''' and f'''. And at the other end, one needs the low notes down to FF which it's fairly rare for harpsichords to have. (Harpsichords frequently end at CC, BB, or AA. A few of Bach's pieces require a GG, which can be played by tuning some other unused note down.)

I can think of only a few keyboard pieces of Bach that go any higher than d''', and offhand I don't know of any pieces of Couperin that do. "This is the end of the keyboard" is an important feature of the music (in both directions), which modern pianists tend to forget as they have a couple extra octaves both ways...d''' doesn't seem high at all on a piano, but that's the "nosebleed section of the bleachers" on the other keyboard instruments!

Tom Hens wrote (December 15, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] Does that book include any information on when harpsichords stopped being made? I happen to know that harpsichords were still being built in Antwerp until at least the first decade of the nineteenth century, but I never looked into the matter any further. So at least until about 1810 there were people around in Europe who didn't just continue using an old harpsichord they still had around, but chose to spend their money (and a considerable amount of it, harpsichords were never cheap instruments) on a new harpsichord rather than a new piano.

But I don't think the practice of publishing what were clearly piano pieces, like Liszt's sonatas, as being for piano or harpsichord for commercial reasons compares to baroque sonatas that were published as suitable for several popular melody instruments with basso continuo. AFAIK, those were often written that way on purpose, and aimed at amateur musicians. The fact that they often aren't very interesting musically may have more to do with the requirement of being very easy to play for use in the home, not with the lack of instrumental specificity. Are there examples of such non-specific instrumental indications on works that were written for performance by professional musicians? I can't remember any off the top of my head. C.P.E. Bach for instance did adapt some of his concertos for harpsichord, flute and cello, but he reworked the solo parts so extensively for each one that they really can't count as the same piece of music anymore.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 15, 2001):
[To Riccardo Nughes] That's what I read in some liner notes. In any case, they were not written for what we know as the piano - more likely for pianoforte.

David Blumberg wrote (December 17, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
<<I don't think it reasonable to possess the premise that one
instrument lends itself more to solo performance than another. Just depends on
personal preference. >>
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< Reviews are all about personal preference. Perhaps it is because the specific oboe sounds very shrill, and does not have that soft, subtle sound that the instrument should. >
Well Kirk - maybe you haven't heard many really good oboists then.

And I don't mean the clunky Dutch, or whiney, thin sounding French Oboists either.

Have a listen to Richard Woodhams (Principal Phila. Orch.) sometime if you want to hear an oboist play "soft, subtle, and non shrill". It can sound pretty gorgeous if played well, and is an instrument from hell if not ;)

ps - have you heard Juozas play?

David Blumberg wrote (December 17, 2001):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
<<The oboe is a beautiful instrument in an orchestra, but it can
be a bit grating solo. That's probably why there is hardly any solo oboe music written. If I understand this statement correctly, you mean truly solo-solo oboe with absolutely no other accompaniment present. >>
Kirk McElhearn wrote:
< Exactly. >
A lot of the time a composer will write for the instrument that they play, or are familiar with. There weren't very many oboe playing composers. I personally am not very "pleased" with the sound of an unaccomp. violin (but of course that is only my opinion). And I have performed with many (including the Concertmaster of the Phila. Orch in recital).

 

See also: Oboe in Bach's Vocal Works [General Topics]

Nicholas Parle: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: Music for Oboe and Harpsichord

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