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"Virtuose Oboenkonzerte" (Virtuosic Oboe Concertos)

Michael Niesemann, oboe
Kölner Akademie
Dir: Michael Alexander Willens

rec: Feb 20 - 23, 2007, Wuppertal, Immanuelskirche
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 029 (© 2008) (72'25")

Johann Christian FISCHER (1733-1800): Concerto for oboe and orchestra No 1 in C; Concerto for oboe and orchestra No 2 in E flat; Concerto for oboe and orchestra No 7 in F; Carl STAMITZ (1745-1801): Concerto for oboe and orchestra in B flat

One is tempted to consider the 19th century as the age of the travelling virtuosos, like the violinist Paganini and the pianist Liszt. But this phenomenon dates from the 18th century, and is closely connected to the emergence of the public concert. Two of the most famous concert organisations which offered performers the opportunity to show their skills were the Concert Spirituel in Paris, and the Bach-Abel concerts in London. One of the virtuosos who travelled through Europe was the oboist Johann Christian Fischer.

Fischer was born in Freiburg and first learned to play the violin. But he turned to the oboe and felt that "he could express his feelings better with the reed than the bow". That in itself is a sign of a new era: in previous times composers or performers didn't look for an expression of their personal feelings. He continued his studies with the Italian oboist Alessandro Besozzi. From 1760 to 1764 he was a member of the chapel of August III in Dresden, and then travelled to Berlin, where he entered the chapel of Frederick the Great. But he didn't stay for long: he travelled to Mannheim, performed at the Concert Spirituel in Paris and in The Hague - where Mozart heard him - and also visited Italy. In 1768 he went to London, where he gave his first public concert in June, and at that same evening Johann Christian Bach gave the first public performance at the fortepiano.

Fischer made such a huge impression that he was invited to play a concerto of his own every night at Vauxhall Gardens. He also regularly participated in the Bach-Abel concerts, where he mostly performed his own compositions. These were mainly written to show his skills as a performer. At the same time he didn't fail to woo the audience. The Concerto No 7 in F ends with an andante, which is a series of variations at the Scotch tune 'Gramachree Molly'. Such pieces were highly fashionable at the time, and his accomodation to the taste of the audience will only have enhanced his reputation.

But it wasn't only his virtuosity which surprised the music lovers. Charles Burney wrote that he composed and played "in a style so new and fanciful, that in point of invention, as well as tone, taste, expression, and neatness of execution, his piece was always regarded as one of the highest treats of the night, and heard with proportionate rapture". Fischer virtually composed only concertos for his own instrument. They were published with the transverse flute or the violin as alternatives, but that was for commercial reasons. Some solo parts were not even playable at the flute. Moreover, there were hardly any amateur oboists around, and they wouldn't have been able to play the solo parts anyway.

A sign of the popularity of Fischer's music is the fact that the rondeaux which ends his Concerto No 1 in C was the subject of many keyboard variations. Mozart also wrote some, and when he had heard him play in The Hague he "liked his playing immensely, as indeed everyone did", as he wrote later. But when Mozart heard Fischer play in Vienna in 1787 he was not complimentary and wrote that he played "like a bad beginner". He observed that "his held notes [are] like the tremulant on the organ". This seems to indicate that his skills had deteriorated considerably, probably as an effect of old age. That same year he returned to London and stopped travelling.

The three concertos played by Michael Niesemann and the Kölner Akademie establish conclusive proof of the features Charles Burney attributed to his composing and performing. The solo parts in the fast movements are indeed very virtuosic, and in his cadenzas Michael Niesemann links up with this character. But as Fischer normally didn't exploit the extreme ranges of the oboe I wonder whether Niesemann is right in going for these extremes in his cadenzas, in particular in the high range of the oboe. I also find them rather long. But Fischer's concertos also contain lyricism as the slow movements show. The three concertos all have the same scoring: oboe solo, strings, two horns and basso continuo.

In addition Michael Niesemann plays the Concerto in B flat by Carl Stamitz. He was the son of Johann Stamitz, one of the key figures of the Mannheim School. He was also a kind of travelling virtuoso, but on the violin and viola, and he played also in Paris. At least from 1777 to 1780 he performed in London, often with Johann Christian Bach. It is very likely Stamitz and Fischer knew each other, and it is quite possible that Fischer has performed this work at one of his concerts. Although it is better known as a clarinet concerto it is probably originally written for the oboe. It is a beautiful work, which is technically less demanding than Fischer's own concertos.

Despite my critical remarks in regard to the cadenzas I strongly recommend this disc. Michael Niesemann's performances of the highly demanding oboe parts is very impressive. But fortunately this disc is more than a display of the dazzling virtuosity of Fischer and Niesemann. This is captivating music and should be enjoyed by anyone who loves the music from the early classical period. The orchestra is excellent throughout, and the music has been well recorded.

The booklet contains a lenghty essay by William Thauer in English, with a German translation.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Kölner Akademie

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