Double take

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An oboe double reed.
An oboe double reed.

At almost every orchestral concert, the first instrument you hear is always the oboe. This is because the oboe sounds the note to which all the other instruments tune. This convention came about largely because the penetrating tone of the oboe can be clearly heard above the other instruments.

The oboe has a long history though the origins are obscure. We know that the instrument as we know it first emerged during the middle of the seventeenth century when it was known by the French name hautbois (OH-bwah). In French, haut means “high” and bois means “wood”. Its predecessor was called the shawm which dated back to medieval times and a harsh-sounding thing it was too.

I’ve always felt that anyone who starts learning the oboe must possess a certain degree of tenacity, because the instrument is something of a challenge for a beginner. The clarinet and saxophone produce their sound with a single reed and it is relatively easy for an absolute beginner to produce a half-decent sound at the first attempt. The oboe has a double reed which consists of two reeds bound to each other and it’s controlled by pressing the lips close together over the double reed. The first sound that beginners manage on the oboe is usually a duck-like honk which surely must be discouraging to a sensitive child. It takes a great deal of practice to convert those initial quacks into something worth hearing.

In the hands of a fine player the oboe can produce a bright, reedy sound with a yearning, lyrical tone quality. The characteristic tone quality, known to musicians as timbre comes from the design of the tube which, like that of the saxophone and the tuba gradually increases in diameter.

The reed has a significant effect on the sound, so much so that oboe players spend a great deal of time selecting a reed that suits their purpose. Most professional oboists make their own reeds but this is a tricky skill that can take years to master. Some professional players make a bit on the side by selling home-made reeds to other oboists.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Concerto for Oboe in C major KV314. François Leleux (ob), Frankfurt Radio Symphony cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada (Duration: 22:11; Video: 720p HD)

Like the vast majority of concertos written during the so-called classical period, this one is cast in three movements: two lively outside movements and a slow one in between them. Mozart wrote this work during the spring of 1777 for the Italian oboist Giuseppe Ferlendis who was the oboist in the orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The following year the composer re-worked this concerto for flute, changing the key to D major. It has since become a well-known concert-piece for both instruments.

The first movement kicks off in joyful fashion, yet with the elegance that typifies so much of Mozart’s music. Notice the clever way the solo oboe begins – a single scale leading to a long note over the shifting melodies played by the orchestra. Listen out for the way Mozart creates interplay between the oboe and the other instruments, sometimes imitating each other or sometimes the solo oboe flying off in little extravaganzas of its own. The orchestration is light and transparent, highlighting the soloist and creating a delicacy of touch.

The slow movement opens in a sombre mood but gradually becomes more song-like and lyrical. In contrast, the chirpy finale fairly belts along and it’s a showpiece for the brilliant technique of this renowned French oboist.  It’s a delight to hear the crystal-clear articulation and the way François Leleux navigates through the difficult virtuosic passages with consummate ease.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Concerto for Oboe in C major. Christoph Hartmann (ob), Symphony Orchestra of the University of Caxias do Sul cond. Diego Schuck Biasibetti (Duration: 23:25; Video: 1080p HD)

The German oboist Christoph Hartmann gives a sparkling performance of this concerto, well supported by the Brazilian orchestra. This three-movement concerto is usually attributed to Haydn. It sounds rather like Haydn’s music and exudes the grace and charm that typifies his orchestral works. However, it’s generally agreed by music historians that he didn’t actually write it. It’s thought the work was composed around 1790 though it was not published until 1926.

The orchestral score was assembled from a unique set of nineteenth-century hand-written orchestral parts found in a monastic library in Zittau, Germany. Someone, for reasons unknown, added Haydn’s name to the title page. Modern research has shown that the concerto was possibly the work of Ignaz Malzat, a rather shadowy figure who lived during the second half of the eighteenth century. Or it might have been written by someone else. Honestly, no one knows for sure.