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Complete Oboe Concertos. Premier Recording on original instruments. Anthony Robson; Collegium Musicum 90; Simon Standage.
The earliest concertos, written in north Italy shortly before 1700, were composed exclusively for strings. This was natural enough, since this region was the main European centre for the manufacture and playing of stringed instruments. It was France and, increasingly, Germany that were the home of wind instruments. Before long, however, the oboe and, slightly later, the transverse flute took root in Italy, while at the same time the concerto genre became popular north of the Alps. This exchange led to the creation of the oboe concerto almost simultaneously in Italy and Germany in the second decade of the eighteenth century.
The eight oboe concertos of Tomaso Albinoni were the earliest such works by an Italian composer to be published. A first group of four (plus four concertos for two oboes and four for strings alone) appeared in his Op. 7 (1715), which was dedicated to a local patrician and amateur musician, Giovanni Donato Correggio; the pattern, evidently succesful, was reproduced exactly in his Op. 9 (1722), dedicated to no less than the elector of Bavaria, Maximilian II Emanuel. It may well be that some of Vivaldi’s oboe concertos - to say nothing of others by Valentini and Alessandro Marcello - were composed before the eight by Albinoni; a few of Telemann’s, too, are likely to predate them. But it is incontrovertible that Albinoni’s examples are the first major "document" in the history of the novel genre. To understand the rather unusual character of these works, we need to know something of Albinoni’s career. A Venetian, he was born into a family of manufacturers of playing cards (his father inherited the business from his former employer, who had died childless). Until middle age Albinonistyled himself "dilettante": that is, a serious amateur rather than a musician by profession. From the very start of his career, in the early 1690s, his musical activity was two-pronged. On one hand, he composed instrumental music for strings (he was himself a leading violinist). Concurrently, he produced numerous operas and cantatas, marrying an operatic singer in 1705. (It may indeed have been via his wife’s appearance on the Munich stage in 1720 that he made first contact with Maximilian Emanuel.) Unlike Vivaldi’s operatic music, his was not a by-product of instrumental composition. Indeed, it would be truer to say that Albinoni’s instrumental music is informed by vocal values; it’s long-breathed, eminently singable lines remind one of operatic "bel canto".
In Albinoni’s oboe concertos the wind instrument functions, in its relationship to the strings, almost like a singer. It is significant that the composer entitles these works "Concerti a cinque con oboe" rather than "Concerti per oboe", as Vivaldi would have done. The expression "a cinque" ("for five") indicates the number of parts excluding continuo (oboe, two violins, viola, cello), while by insisting that these are concertos "with" rather than "for" oboe, Albinoni draws attention to the importance of the violin parts (especially the first violin), which combine with the oboe on a basis of near-equality. The listener will notice that Albinoni has a predilection - relative in Op. 7 but absolute in Op. 9 - for "full" accompaniments to the oboe; this contrasts with the more normal preference, shared by Vivaldi and Telemann, for a plain continuo support in solo passages.
All eight concertos feature the three-movement layout (fast-slow-fast) that Albinoni did so much to popularize in his earliest published concertos, Op. 2 (1700) and Op. 5 (1707). The outer movements employ a curious hybrid form that in part follows the pattern of Albinoni’s string concertos (where the same "motto" theme introduces each musical section) but also borrows from the "da capo" aria. Albinoni regularly makes the oboe enter with its own "motto" phrase. The first time, this idea is cut short by the strings; the second time, the oboe is allowed to extend the idea to the end of the section. This opening gambit, for which the German scholar Hugo Riemann coined the term "Devise" (the German word for a heraldic "device"), is very common in arias written around 1700, although, strangely enough, it was becoming obsolete by the time Albinoni decided to use it in his concertos. Generally speaking, the "string" motto and the "oboe" motto are thematically related or have a common harmonic structure. Albinoni is a composer for whom repetition (with enough variation to keep tedium at bay) is a more characteristic process than contrast.
The slow movements are a little more varied in type. Most are conceived as a freely unfolding lyrical dialogue between oboe and upper strings. In Op. 7 No. 9, however, Albinoni includes a rather oldfashioned type of slow movement, for strings alone, in which the instruments mimic the flowing counterpoint and continuous modulation of vocal polyphony in the "chromatic" style. The jewel of the slow movements is without question the second movement of Op. 9 No. 2. This is a much more formally structured movement than the others and pits the long-breathed cantilena of the oboe against an unchanging background of undulating violin semiquavers.
If one compares the oboe concertos of Op. 7 with their counterparts in Op. 9, one sees a difference. The first group have an almost Vivaldian vigour - this was the period in Albinoni’s career when he was most influenced by the younger composer. The second group, longer and more richly elaborated, are more impressive demonstrations of the composer’s skill, although perhaps slightly less vital. Their greatest strength lies in their consistently lyrical writing for the solo instrument, which is unusual for a period when violin style, full of arpeggiated figures, dominated. They show to perfection Albinoni’s gifts for melody, counterpoint and solid construction.
© 1995 Michael Talbot