Too Much Tchaikovsky

Oboe Quartets

What does an oboe sound like?

If you fancy yourself a connoisseur of yin/yang balancing acts, oboes might well provide your soundtrack. On the one hand: honey. Golden, slow-pouring strands of melody. Sweet, thick.

On the other: vinegar. Tart little bites of tone that sting, then linger in your mouth, their acidity reminding you—perhaps too much at times—of life’s realities.

Handel liked oboes; he usually added some to his violins to get a more penetrating sound. The string sections in his orchestras for Messiah and other works were juiced up, oboes on top, bassoons on the bottom. Bach liked oboes too. The St. Matthew Passion requires four; they also appear in the Brandenburg Concertos and the Orchestral Suites, not to mention the oboe concertos. He showed enormous affection as well for their deeper-voiced siblings, the oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia. You can hear those more melancholy voices in the obbligato arias of the Passions and in many of the church cantatas.

So it’s no surprise that Mozart found himself drawn to the oboe. Maybe it had something to do with oboist Friedrich Ramm, whom Mozart met at Mannheim in 1777. They became drinking buddies, so when Mozart found himself in Munich finishing up Idomeneo, he also fashioned an Oboe Quartet (K370) for Ramm. An oft-recorded work, it offers a Classic-era model of how to pair the oboe with other instruments—in this case members of a string quartet minus the first violin, whose role the oboe assumes.

Except, of course, it can’t really do that. An oboe is not a violin. Its pitch compass and dynamic range are both more restricted. Plus, it can’t move around with the same flexibility. And then there’s the whole honey vs. vinegar thing.

A recent recording of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet shows us just how well Mozart managed to strike a balance anyway:

The oboe is definitely in charge. Yet it drops out often enough to sustain the illusion that the strings are, if not exactly equal partners, at least still in the game. I’m sure you noticed how the first time the violinist plays lead, it’s with the tune; when the oboe re-enters, it’s with a subordinate, concluding phrase. Following that, the strings do a call, the oboe a response. Nicely balanced, although thanks to the distinctive timbre of the oboe—and its placement in a higher register—we’re never in real doubt as to where attention must be paid.

This is from a lovely recent album called “A Tribute to Janet” from Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Oboe Quartet (Harmonia Mundi HMM 907672). You can read about them here. I think they do a bang-up job with the Mozart—it’s virtuosic, playful and heartfelt in all the right ways. But what really sold me on this album were the other selections. I was particularly pleased to hear a Quatuor by Jean Françaix (1912–1997), because I love Françaix, one of the most underrated of 20th-century composers. We’ll sample some of that light-hearted work in a moment.

First, though, a bit of heavier lifting. The Britten Oboe Quartet is comprised of principals drawn from the Britten Sinfonia; both ensembles honor Benjamin Britten in name although they have no direct connection with the musical activities at Snape, Suffolk, that Britten fostered. Composer Oliver Knussen (b. 1952) did enjoy a long association with Britten, his music, and Snape’s Aldeburgh Festival. “A Tribute to Janet” honors Nicholas Daniel’s teacher Janet Craxton, whose London Oboe Quartet gave first performances of the Knussen and Françaix works included here. So it’s quite appropriate that their debut album feature works by Knussen, Françaix, and Britten himself, who wrote a likable Phantasy op. 2 for oboe quartet as a teenager.

Knussen’s Cantata op. 15, written when he was 25, is actually the more interesting work. In it, he adopts the idea of a “cantata” as a series of brief, contrasting sections flowing from one to the next with (in Daniel’s words) “a kind of controlled freedom” that includes recitative-like moments in which oboe and strings play at different speeds. This is a technique similar to those that Ligeti and Lutosławski developed (using the terms “micropolyphony” and “limited aleatorism” respectively) well before young Knussen gave it a try.

What struck me about Knussen’s Cantata, though, was its fascinating exchange of similar gestures between strings and oboe. They toss the same motives back and forth, sharing “data” in a way that actually highlights the differences between their idioms. It’s as if Knussen were showing us that, hey, we can talk, but I’ll still be me, while you do you. Listen:

By opening up the work’s texture and making its structures more fluid, Knussen is able to emphasize the contrasting aural identities of the instruments in a way that wasn’t possible (or desirable) for Mozart, given the constraints and conventions of his time.

Finally, Françaix. Classic forms and neo-classic tunes. Wit and warmth. I’m not a big fan of so-called comfort food—give me exotic ingredients and plenty of heat—but I sure like this guy, who wrote a lot of chamber music for or with winds. Check out the Vivo assai from his 1970 Quatuor pour cor anglais, violon, alto et violoncelle (yes, a cor anglais is an English horn, big sister to the oboe):

And this, one of two meltingly melodic slow movements in Françaix’s five postcards from nowhere near the edge:

The recording, too, manages a delicate balance. Vivid and intimate, it never tips into harshness. For once the nasal sound of the oboe and the sometimes-indelicate rasp of the strings don’t dominate proceedings in a bad way. Bravo to producer/engineer Andrew Mellor, and to Harmonia Mundi for shepherding the debut of a singularly successful small group.