Suggested Listening Special Edition: 5 awesome Italian oboe works you’ve probably never heard of

I’M GOING TO ITALY!  For the next three weeks I’ll be in Siena playing chamber music and speaking Italian, and I am absurdly excited.  This will be my last post for a month, then, so for this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC I thought I’d leave you all with some of my favorite random Italian oboe music!  I’ve chosen five pieces that are short and sweet and totally accessible for the Skeptic, but also kind of obscure.  Unless you frequent oboe recitals (and, let’s be real — who does?), I bet these will be new to you.  I hope you enjoy them!  Arrivederci!

  1. Cimarosa: Oboe Concerto in C Major 
    Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) was an opera composer — he wrote over eighty, the most famous being Il Matrimonio Segreto — and his operatic style is clear in this concerto.  It’s quirky and jaunty and very lyrical, with sudden stylistic changes swinging from a comfortable larghetto to a showy allegro to a mournful sicilana to a perky allegro giusto.  The video above is on the older side, from a 1959 recording of oboist André Lardrot with the Chamber Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera.  The sound is a bit different from what modern oboists strive for, but it’s gorgeous nonetheless, capturing all the operatic energy of Cimarosa’s weird little masterpiece. 
  2. Donizetti: Andante sostenuto 
     Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) was another composer most famous for writing operas.  Along with his perhaps better-known counterpart Rossini, he composed in the sophisticated bel canto style that pervaded Italian opera in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The Andante sostenuto for oboe and strings was written around the time that his opera Poliuto was censored by the Italian government, prompting Donizetti to move to Paris to have more freedom in his compositional career — so perhaps this sad, dark, beautiful piece was written as a sort of farewell to his country and countrymen.  Oboist Christoph Hartmann of the Berlin Philharmonic delivers a heartfelt performance in this first-ever recording of a little-known oboe gem.
  3. Pasculli: Le Api 
     Antonio Pasculli (1842-1924) has been called the Paganini of the oboe.  A child prodigy, he began performing throughout Europe when he was only fourteen, playing showy, virtuosic pieces that are considered extremely difficult even by today’s standards, on an old-fangled oboe with half as many keys as the modern one.  Pretty impressive.  When the existing repertoire proved too easy for his extraordinary skill, Pasculli turned to composing.  He wrote numerous works based on melodies from contemporaneous operas — one of his most famous is a Grand Concerto on themes from Donizetti’s La Favorita — and all of his compositions are very challenging musically and especially technically.  Le Api (“the bees”) is seven pages of ridiculously fast notes with absolutely zero places to breathe.  Pasculli subtitled it as a “characteristic etude,” meant to whimsically capture the image of a swarm of bees.  It’s like Flight of the Bumblebee, but with an air of Italian pizzazz, brilliantly executed in the above recording by British oboist Christopher Redgate.  
  4. Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 Oboes in D minor, RV 535 
     Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was king of the Italian Baroque.  A prolific composer whose most popular work may be his Four SeasonsVivaldi was also a dedicated music educator, employed at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà to transform the young orphan girls abandoned by Venetian society into one of Italy’s most acclaimed musical ensembles.  His job required him to compose a new concerto every week, resulting in an uncommonly enormous repertoire of music for even the less popular instruments — I mean, 37 bassoon concertos?  Really, Vivaldi?  He wrote over a dozen for the oboe, including this one, not performed too often — an upbeat yet dark dialogue between the two oboes and orchestra, with four movements alternating between mournful largo and fanfarish allegro.  Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra gives a historically authentic performance in the recording above.
  5. Yvon: Capriccio 
     Carlo Yvon (1798-1854) was an oboe virtuoso who served for many years as principal oboist in the orchestra of Milan’s La Scala, one of the world’s most famed opera houses.  Additionally, he studied and later taught oboe at the Milan Conservatory.  His compositions reflect his own incredible technical ability that he strove to instill in his students, as well as his occupational familiarity with operatic music.  The Capriccio is a trio for three oboes, and features challenging, flashy passages full of fast notes encompassing the instrument’s full range.  The piece swerves through a variety of moods and styles, much like the drama of an opera, and includes many lyrical moments where the oboes imitate sopranos singing an aria.  This recording features three oboe rock stars: renowned soloist and Berlin Phil alum Nigel Shore, Grammy winner and former Chicago Symphony principal Alex Klein, and famed British soloist Gordon Hunt.  Too much awesome in one room.

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