ALBINONI: The Collected Concertos for Oboe and Strings – Anthony Robson, oboe/ Catherine Latham, oboe/ Collegium Musicum 90/ Simon Standage – Chandos CHAN 0792 (3 CDs), 3+ hours [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Chandos has repackaged its series of the complete oboe concertos of Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), a man who was nearly contemporary with Bach and Handel, yet whose music was much nearer to the earlier Italian works that the latter composed. Today we know him primarily for his infamous Adagio which has been subjected to almost as many arrangements, some perverse and others acceptable, as the Pachelbel Canon. A Venetian by birth, his fame in his day rested primarily on his reputation as an opera composer—being Italian, could it have been any other way?—yet today, aside from the piece just mentioned, he is known for his concertos. He was well off and never seemed to feel the need to seek royal patronage or a position in the church, and pretty much wrote what he liked. It is interesting that in 1740 his violin sonatas were published in France, yet they were listed as posthumous; evidently this once-notable composer had slipped into some kind of obscurity during the last 10 years of his life—-why, we don’t know—but records show that he did die in Venice in 1751, of diabetes.

His operas are gone, never having been published during his life, which is another oddity considering that he surely could have arranged for such if he wanted, so we are left with his 99 sonatas, 59 concertos and nine sinfonias, which have been reprinted many times, and in fact not only were considered the equals of masters like Vivaldi and Corelli, but are in fact worthy to be considered with those luminaries. It’s still a shame about those operas; the composer claimed to have written 81 of them, and at least 28 were performed over a 20 year period—right up to the point of his mysterious decline in 1740—and this makes him easily one of the most successful opera composers in history. Bach loved him, and based two of his works on themes by him. As for the famous Adagio—there are some who now believe that Albinoni did not write it at all, but that it was a hoax, written by the twentieth century musicologist Remo Giazotto, who died in 1998. He originally claimed that it was based on a fragment by Albinoni, and later said that he composed it all himself. But research shows that there exists an Albinoni fragment upon which Giazotto may indeed have based his composition. At any rate, he owned the copyright—whatever Albinoni may or may not have done with it will remain forever unknown.

These concertos, 16 in all for one and two oboes, and the others violin concertos along with one short Sinfonia, set the standard for these kinds of works. Albinoni was the first composer in Italy to write concertos for the instrument, though a few others outside the country may have penned a piece or two before him, and definitely the first to use it so extensively. They are in typical three movement fast-slow-fast form, and are completely delightful in their extreme melodic fecundity. The fact is these are some of the most incredibly tuneful concertos you will ever hear, and no lover of Baroque music should be without them. These reissues are from 1995-1997, and Chandos is offering them in this new box set for about ten bucks a disc. The sound is spectacular, and performances as good as you are going to hear by artists long established in the genre, and I can’t think of a better way to spend three hours—and they go by quickly!

Concerti a cinque, Op. 7, Nos. 1-12; Concerti a cinque, Op. 9, Nos. 1-6; Concerti a cinque, Op. 9, Nos. 7-12; Sinfonia

—Steven Ritter