Beethoven, Wranitzky: Oboe Trios / Schachman, Spahr, Et Al

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No matter how well we think we know the music of a specific composer, we are consistently surprised when something from the darker recesses of their output appears on a concert program or a compact disc. Beethoven left a small but significant quantity of wind chamber music. Small but significant. Is that a contradiction in terms? Under some circumstances it might be, but in the case of Beethoven, the answer is a resounding “Nyet!” The fact is, Beethoven’s Sextet, op. 71 (scored for clarinets, horns, and bassoons), and the Octet, op. 103 (which adds a pair of oboes to the makeup of the Sextet), have earned a place of honor in the wind ensemble repertoire. So has the brief but lovely Rondino, WoO 25, which is scored for the same forces. There are less familiar works as well, including three duets for clarinet and bassoon, and the music for double reed trio on this recording.

Among the musicians that Beethoven encountered in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were the oboists Johann Wendt, Georg Triebensee, and his son, Josef. Tradition indicates that Beethoven’s Trio, op. 87, was inspired by similar works penned by Wendt and indeed, he wrote several such works for himself and Triebensee père et fil. The existence of more than a fistful of such seemingly oddly scored works is an indicator of the popularity of the genre at the time. Both the trio and the Mozart variations appear to date from the late 1790s and there is speculation that the variations were the original finale to the lengthier and more complex trio. Beethoven virtually abandoned wind chamber music after the turn of the 18th century, but works such as the trios recorded here and other music from his early years were instrumental—pardon the pun—in developing his treatment of the orchestral winds.

The Beethoven works owe their contemporary success to the composer’s ability to write for a group of winds that is somewhat analogous to a string configuration of two violins and viola or a vocal ensemble of two sopranos and an alto. There is no true bass instrument; the underpinning is assigned to the English horn, as is some of the melodic work. The Trio, op. 87, is full of the confidence of youth, almost bordering on braggadocio, but Beethoven’s sure footed treatment of the material and the way in which he dispenses it to the performers herald some of the great things to come. The set of variations on “La ci darem la mano” is among my favorites in the wind chamber music repertoire. It offers daunting challenges, both technical and expressive, and much contrast in style throughout its nine-minute run. All of the performers are put through their paces, especially the English horn in the second variation and the first oboist in the fifth. Melodic lines are tossed back and forth with the ease one would expect from Beethoven, and a delightful scherzo-like section dovetails into a quasi Andante variation on the theme, which concludes the work.

Beethoven’s circle of friends in Vienna included the brothers Paul and Anton Wranitzky. The youngest of the pair, Anton, was a much-respected composer, conductor, and concert manager. He studied with the best (Mozart, Albrechtsberger, and Haydn) and was so highly thought of that he went on to become leader of the Imperial Court Orchestra and of the orchestra at the Theater an der Wien. Undoubtedly Wranitzky worked with Wendt and Josef Triebensee at some point and either favored them with this trio gratis, or wrote it on commission from them. The trio could almost be termed a symphony for two oboes and English horn, for all of the elements are there, a fully-developed sonata-form first movement, a sunny and uncomplicated andante with a pleasant set of variations, the traditional minuet, and a buffo rondo finale in which all three protagonists chatter away like so many village gossips. These are relaxed, genial, and well-articulated readings that must be as much fun to play as they are to listen to. Textures are pellucid, clearly defined, and blended with masterly expertise. The sense of give-and-take between these three people is exceptional and the replications of old instruments project a unique and pungent tone that lacks the nasal quality found in their modern counterparts. Sadly, there is one problem. These three outstanding American wind-players have no collective name. I like Prevailing Winds. What about you?

Michael Carter, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8554550

  • UPC: 636943455029

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Antonin Vranicky, Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Performer: John Abberger, Lani Spahr, Marc Schachman