“Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas” = by BOWEN, Op. 85; PETR EBEN, Op. 1; DUTILLEUX; BOZZA; POULENC, FP 185; SAINT-SAENS, OP. 166 – Alex Klein, oboe/ Phillip Bush, piano – Cedille CDR 90000 186, 79:26 *****:
No sooner had I completed another Cedille issue of viola works with Matthew Lipman—a stunning recording—comes this equally stunning recording with the indefatigable Alex Klein. If you don’t know Klein, well, you haven’t really heard the oboe! Brazilian by birth, he got his education at the Oberlin Conservatory before hooking up with the Chicago Symphony from 1995 – 2004 where he received a Grammy award for his recording of the Strauss concerto in 2002 under Barenboim, and finally given “emeritus” status by Riccardo Muti. He had to leave the CSO because of developing Musician’s Focal Dystonia but relearned his instrument and successfully re-obtained his CSO position in 2016, though the orchestra denied his tenure after he, according to them, unsuccessfully completed his probationary year.
You will find that hard to believe after hearing this stunning disc. Klein, now Principal Oboist of the Calgary Philharmonic, plays with a verve, emotional impact, and technical prowess that stuns, seduces, and saturates the ears in a way few oboists can manage. There is also a personal sort of swansong intimacy to this disc, which Klein himself acknowledges in his personal note found in the recording booklet, worth repeating here: “I have a certain nostalgia besides the one caused by age: focal dystonia brought a significant burden to my life and led me to rebuild my playing. Still, I don’t know how long I have left to play oboe. This recording has more to do with closing than anticipating ambitious projects for the future. This may well be one of my last oboe statements.” Let’s certainly hope this isn’t the case!
But—for the time being Klein has given us definitive performances of most of the major oboe standards, plus a few that he is close to. Bowen’s sonata is magnificent, underplayed, and elevated here to the status it has long deserved. The two champs here, Poulenc and Saint-Saens have never received better readings. The 1947 Dutilleux is a monster—jazzy, modal, superimpositions galore, all ending with an almost childlike last movement that poses challenges in rhythm, dynamics, and tonal coloring that few players can muster—Klein does.
Anyone who knows Eugene Bozza, especially wind players, know what an absolute master he is at writing highly idiomatic pieces. With thirteen in the pocket for oboe alone, this 1971 sonata takes the cake for organic wind composition of any stripe. Finally, Petr Eben, who faced persecutions from the Nazis because of his Jewish father, and later from the Communists over his Catholicism, found a voice when Alex Klein took up this opus 1 sonata at the 1986 Prague Spring Festival, and himself considers it an impassioned part of his youth. The piece is a gem—ebullient, well-structured, and memorable, from a composer himself only 21 years of age at its 1950 gestation.
This recital is important and necessary. If another Grammy doesn’t find its way into Klein’s hands, there is just no justice in the world.
— Steven Ritter