If Haydn Had Written for Oboe = HAYDN: Sinfonia Concertante in B Major for Violin, Cello, Oboe, and Bassoon; Divertimento (Capriccio) in A Major for Harpsichord, Violin, and Cello; Concerto in C Major for Oboe and Orchestra – Alexei Utkin, oboe/ Hermitage Chamber Orch. – Caro Mitis multichannel SACD CM 0042006 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Until recently, Caro Mitis was a label known to me only by name. But I’ve come to appreciate the intriguing concept albums this label puts together, right down to the appealingly minimalist cover designs and maximalist booklets, with lots of tightly cropped photos of the performers running down the margins. While some record companies are scrimping today on design, Caro Mitis seems committed to going the whole hog, which wouldn’t be much of an enticement to sample unless the company had musically compelling fare to offer. And it does.
In the case of the disc under review, the concept is a kind of negative one: even the “if” in the title is not entirely accurate because Haydn did write for oboe solo. Sort of. However, his one work spotlighting oboe, the Sinfonia Concertante, has that instrument sharing the stage with three other soloists. So the notes to the recording explain, “The present disc is far from being the collection of Haydn’s works for oboe, but rather an endeavor of a talented oboe-performer (Alexei Utkin) in love with Haydn’s music to imagine how this composer could have written for the instrument.” Thus we have, in addition to the Sinfonia, an early trio in which the original violin part has been transcribed for oboe d’amore and a spurious but pretty wonderful concerto for oboe and orchestra.
The notes to the recording have a good deal of interesting background information on the Sinfonia Concertante. Haydn was dragooned into writing it when the impresario Johann Salomon, who arranged the series of concerts that produced Haydn’s twelve London Symphonies, learned that a rival series called the Professional Concert was about to introduce a sinfonia concertante by Ignace Pleyel. Pleyel is one of those mostly forgotten composers who are now getting a new lease on life through recordings. But around 1800, as Haydn’s career was nearing its close, Pleyel’s was still on the ascent: he was widely considered the most important composer in Europe. Certainly by 1792, when the friendly rivalry between Haydn and Pleyel took place in England, he was considered significant enough to go head to head with the reigning European master. I say “friendly rivalry” because Pleyel, who was a former pupil of Haydn’s, managed to stay on good terms with the older composer throughout his life.
Whereas Pleyel was a virtual sinfonia concertante factory, turning out a number of these Baroque-inspired works for various combinations of instruments, Haydn produced only the one he wrote for the Salomon concerts. It has always gotten mixed reviews. When it was premiered, it was not the great hit that Haydn’s London symphonies were, and it is another of those almost forgotten pieces that got a reprieve through the recording studio. Today, though it is widely performed, it is still controversial. Some critics think it is as fine as Mozart’s famous works in the form; others think it is lesser Haydn at best. I’ve always been partial to the work, which makes its points very compellingly in a performance like the one from Utkin and the Hermitage Chamber Orchestra. By the looks of the photo in the booklet, this is a prevailingly young ensemble, and they play with the enthusiasm and spirit of youth, as well as a good deal of technical polish. Tempi are mostly faster than I’ve heard elsewhere, even from original-instrument bands such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Virgin). All to the good, I say. The work unfolds excitingly in the Hermitage’s performance.
One curious feature of the performance, however, is the inclusion of the harpsichord. I’ve never heard the work played with this old-fashioned continuo instrument in place, and I’m stumped as to why it’s here. Now, some recordings of the London Symphonies have included harpsichord continuo, probably taking their cue from the keyboard obbligato in the finale of Symphony 98. Here, harpsichordist Haydn and violinist Salomon got to show off their talents for the delectation of the first London audiences. But most critics dismiss the inclusion of the harpsichord in late Haydn as a silly anachronism. In the current performance of the Sinfonia, I don’t find this inclusion obtrusive or quaint. It works for me, but then I’m not doctrinaire about the whole continuo issue. You can judge for yourself.
The Divertimento, a work from the early years of Haydn’s employment at the Esterházy palace, is a charming interlude between the major works on the disc. Since it isn’t widely known in its original incarnation for violin, cello, and harpsichord, I don’t see how there can be any objections to Utkin’s transcription for oboe d’amore. As the notes explain, the main pitch of the oboe d’amore is A major, the key the work is written in—further justification, if any is needed beyond the lovely playing of three performers.
That leaves the Oboe Concerto, a work attributed to Haydn because his name appears on the original manuscript. This is probably a ploy to capitalize on the composer’s fame. It is decidedly not by Haydn, though it’s still recorded under his name. Caveat emptor. Actually, Haydn’s work or not, it’s a strong piece, with a lively, fetching last movement that combines elements of variations form with a rondo. This is very, very good music whoever wrote it. Again, Utkin is in excellent form, as is the orchestra, all captured in nicely detailed, atmospheric sound.
As with other Caro Mitis recordings, I’m grabbed by the cover art, a drawing of a gentleman and lady out for a stroll by 18th-century Scottish artist John Kay. It couldn’t be more appropriate.
– Lee Passarella