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"Around Mozart - A journey through the golden age of the oboe quartet"

Quartetto Bernardini

rec: Jan 8 - 11, 2020, Haarlem, Lutherse Kerk
Arcana - A 482 (© 2021) (67'29")
Liner-notes: E/F/IT
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Quartet in B flat (Warb B 60); Charles BOCHSA père (c1760-1821): Romance favorite 'Les plus jolis mots' in F; Justus Johann Friedrich DOTZAUER (1783-1860): Quartet in F, op. 37; Georg DRUSCHETZKY (1745-1819): Canone à quatro voci del Sig. Kirnberger in a minor; Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Quartet in F (K 370/368b); Alessandro ROLLA (1757-1841): Piccolo Quartetto in C (BI 425)

Alfredo Bernardini, oboe; Cecilia Bernardini, violin; Simone Jandl, viola; Marcus van den Munckhof, cello

The oboe was developed in France in the 17th century and quickly disseminated across Europe. It evolved into one of the most frequently-used instruments. The likes of Bach, Telemann and Handel wrote many obbligato parts for the oboe - and its variants oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia - in their instrumental as well as vocal works. It remained very popular in the classical era. It was one of the main instruments in Harmoniemusik, one of the most beloved genres of diverting music. In addition, a large repertoire of quartets for oboe and string trio came into existence. This genre was basically an adaptation of the baroque genre of the trio sonata for oboe and violin. The best-known oboe quartet is the one by Mozart, and this explains why the present disc comes with the title "Around Mozart".

It is notable that only two of the composers represented here were oboists themselves: Charles Bochsa père and Georg Druschetzky. The other composers must have had a thorough knowledge of the features of the instrument, as they are responsible for some of the most virtuosic pieces included here. Often they wrote their quartets with a particular player in mind.

That is very likely the case with Johann Christian Bach, who often played, for instance at the Bach-Abel concerts, with the oboist Johann Christian Fischer, who had been a member of the court chapel in Dresden and after that was in the service of Frederick the Great. He had also performed in Mannheim and at the Concert Spirituel in Paris, to great acclaim. Bach's Quartet in B flat is a typical exponent of the galant style: as so many pieces of its kind it is in only two movements. The last was usually a minuet (sometimes with variations) or, as is the case here, a rondo. The bass is reminiscent of the baroque basso continuo practice.

Mozart also composed his Quartet in F for a particular performer, Friedrich Ramm, whom he had become acquainted with during his visit in Mannheim, where Ramm was principal oboe. Mozart greatly admired his style of playing, and in his quartet he fully explores the technical skills of Ramm, as the oboe part is highly demanding, as Alfredo Bernardini explains in his liner-notes. Part of the requirements is the inclusion of three high notes that exceed the normal upper limit of the instrument at that time (E flat, E and F in the third octave). Such things explain why it has become such a popular work, in addition to its purely musical qualities.

Another demanding piece is the Quartet in F by Justus Johann Friedrich Dotzauer, who was a cellist by profession, and wrote a treatise about playing the instrument. This oboe quartet is his only contribution to the genre, but it is a substantial one. The oboe part includes even more high notes than Mozart's quartet. It has four movements, very much like a solo concerto, and the oboe part could well figure within a real concerto. The third movement is a minuet with trio; the oboe only participates in the trio, and keeps silent in the minuet, probably - as Bernardini suggests - to give the oboist some rest. The closing movement is a rondo.

After 1800 composers liked to use popular tunes in their compositions. The programme includes two such pieces. The first is from the pen of Charles Bochsa père, who added 'père' to his name to distinguish himself from his son, who was a famous harpist (whose music is frequently played by harpists of our time). The father, born in Bohemia, was a professional oboist, who first played in a military band and then worked as oboist in several opera houses. The Romance favorite opens with an introduction, and then we hear variations on the song Les plus jolis mots by Henri Noël Gilles (1778-1834), which was originally scored for voice and guitar. In one variation the cello plays a prominent role.

The second piece which includes popular melodies is the Piccolo Quartetto by Alessandro Rolla, who was the conductor of the orchestra of La Scala in Milan, which he developed into an internationally acclaimed ensemble. He was a violinist by profession, and the first teacher for violin and viola at the Milan Conservatory, founded in 1808. The oboe quartet was performed in 1814 by his pupil Carlo Yvon, who was just 16 years of age at the time, and only three years later was appointed oboe professor at the Conservatory. After a short Romance, the Allegro includes various then popular melodies. Among the strings the violin part stands out, and Bernardini suggests that it may have been Rolla himself who played that part in 1814.

The disc ends in a most curious way. In Georg Druschetzky we meet the second professional oboist among the composers in the programme. He wrote at least seventeen oboe quartets. Five of them were recorded by the Grundmann-Quartett, with the oboist Eduard Wesley. Here we get his Canone à quattro voci del Sig. Kirnberger, which is actually not based on a subject by Johann Philipp Kirnberger himself, but rather Martin Luther's chorale Aus tiefer Noth schrei ich zu dir (not "ruf ich", as Bernardini writes), which he may have learnt from a treatise by Kirnberger, who was a pupil of Bach, who arranged this chorale several times. The melody returns a number of times; Bernardini calls it a "moto perpetuo".

This piece brings this compelling disc to a surprising and unconventional close. Lovers of the oboe certainly have one or several recordings of Mozart's quartet in their collection, but the performance by Bernardini and his colleagues is such, that they should add this disc. Moreover, the other pieces may well be seldom, if ever, performed or recorded. Each one of them is well worth having, and receives an outstanding performance. This disc is the best display of classical music for oboe that I have heard in a long time. In addition to the repertoire and the performances, this disc is also interesting for reasons of performance practice. The players have adapted their style of playing to the piece they perform, and Bernardini uses five different oboes, which he describes in the booklet and which are also pictured. The Quartetto Bernardini has given us a great recording to which I certainly will return. I have enjoyed it from the first to the last note.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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