Ours is an era where bargain anthologies from the greatest artists, ensembles, and composers on record compete with new issues of unusual repertoire and transcriptions. One among many that have caught my mind and ear is Alex Klein and Philip Bush’s recording of Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas. Issued by the Chicago-based Cedille label and available on disc, as a 24/96 download, and streaming (including 24/96 on Qobuz), it showcases the artistry of Klein—Brazil native, Grammy Award winner, and Principal Oboe Emeritus of the Chicago Symphony—and chamber music piano specialist Bush.
Judging from the range of composers on this album, from conservatives York Bowen (1884-1961) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) to the adventurous Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) and Francis Poulenc (1889-1963), the oboe’s power to convey joy and sadness has inspired some delicious writing. Brit Bowen’s Sonata for Oboe and Pianoforte, Op. 85 (1927) provides a melodic, light alternative to this era’s multilevel assault. As Klein’s oboe bubbles and Bush’s piano sparkles, smiles are the order of the day. If I were asked to suggest background music for cooking a soufflé or serving formal tea on the patio, Bowen’s work would be near the top of the playlist.
The Oboe Sonata, Op. 1 (1950), by Petr Eben (1929-2007), is equally delightful. A youthful work that in spots is perhaps too much of a good thing, its resolute militare opening is more carefree than aggressive. There’s a lot of sadness in the ensuing Pastorale, but its dancing conclusion is lively and upbeat, if a bit repetitive. Eben may have suffered under the Nazis for his father’s Judaism, and then in Communist Czechoslovakia for his Catholicism, but you’d never know it from this piece.
Many of Dutilleux’s richly colorful, carefully crafted works challenge both the mind and spirit—but not the early Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1947). This sonata is among the pieces Dutilleux disowned because they do not reflect the level of color and refinement of his few later works. Nonetheless, it offers many hints of what was to come. The work forced Klein to invent new fingerings and ways to work with the oboe’s reed in order to meet its dynamic demands.
Frenchman Eugène Bozza (1905-1991) may have composed his four-movement sonata in 1971, but it seems to have one foot in the present and the other in an earlier time when melody and consonance ruled. The animated finale is filled with humor. His fellow Frenchman, Francis Poulenc (1889-1963), wrote his sonata in 1962, the year before his death. It begins with an elegy and ends with unresolved sadness. In between, it’s surprisingly upbeat. This is a special work with the power to lead listeners deep within.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), too, wrote his oboe sonata in the final year of his life, but it sounds anything but valedictory. Because Klein sticks to the tempo markings, which few oboists do, he expects that some will greet it as his most radical performance on the recording. Whether or not, the finale is a delicious tour de force that shows Klein at his best.
Following a program overflowing with free, energetic playing, it’s startling to read that this recording may be Klein’s last. Due to focal dystonia, which has forced him to rebuild his playing, he doesn’t know how much time remains for him as an oboist. “This recording has more to do with closing than anticipating ambitious projects for the future,” he writes in the liner notes. If Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas is Klein’s farewell, that makes it all the more a recording to cherish.
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