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Martinu: Concerto; Antal Dorati: Divertimento; Heinz Holliger: Sonata

Kwak / Martinu / Dorati / Holliger / Goritzki
Release Date: 04/06/2010 
Label:  Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog #: 9031586   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Bohuslav MartinuHeinz HolligerAntal Doráti
Performer:  Yeon-Hee Kwak
Conductor:  Johannes Goritzki
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Munich Radio Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
Length: 0 Hours 59 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MARTIN? Oboe Concerto. HOLLIGER Sonata for Solo Oboe. DORÁTI Divertimento for Oboe and Orchestra Yeon-Hee Kwak (ob); Johannes Goritzki, cond; Munich RO MDG 9031586 (SACD: 59: 35)

Evidence of Bohuslav Martin?’s growing popularity is offered by this new recording of his Oboe Concerto, the second to come my way in as many months. The earlier one appeared on the Oehms label, Read more performed by oboist Stefan Schilli with Mariss Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Martin? composed the piece in 1955, shortly after returning to France. It was commissioned, however, by the Czech oboist Ji?i Tancibudek, who, at the time, was living with his wife in Australia after being expelled from Czechoslovakia. Tancibudek premiered the work in 1956 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra led by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. As stated in my prior review, the concerto is “a jaunty, jolly thing, with a hint of Gershwin in the first movement, and tinged by Martin?’s gift for darker-hued, dumka -like, Czech-flavored melodies. It’s a short work, playing for only a little over 16 minutes, but its three movements in classic fast-slow-fast order are perfectly polished miniature gems, and the writing is beautifully crafted for the oboe.”

Of Schilli’s playing I waxed enthusiastic, calling him a world-class artist, who since 1992 has held the post of principal oboe with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Yeon-Hee Kwak’s Korean background and musical training at the Hanyang University in Seoul might initially lead one to wonder if she wouldn’t be at somewhat more of a cultural remove from the Czech-French-American melting pot that formed the basis of Martin?’s musical dialect. But that doubt quickly dissolves upon learning that Kwak followed up her studies in Stuttgart under acclaimed oboist Ingo Goritzki and in 1995 won first prize at the International Chamber Music Competition in Lodz, Poland. More prizes followed at other international competitions. From 2000 to 2008, Kwak was deputy principal oboist in the Munich Radio Orchestra and on the faculty at the State Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart. So what we have going here is an interesting contest between two exceptionally fine players—Schilli and Kwak—each performing Martin?’s concerto with the orchestra in which each is or was its principal oboist.

In matters of technical skill and interpretive acuity, I’d have to call it a draw. So what other factors are there to consider that might tip the balance in favor of one recording over the other? Both the Oehms and the new MDG discs are relatively short on playing time—54:44 vs. 59:35. So that’s a wash. The orchestras—the Bavarian Radio vs. the Munich Radio—are kissing cousins, their bonds made even closer not just by the same city they call home but by the fact that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1949, just three years before the Munich Radio Orchestra, drew its members from an earlier incarnation of the Munich ensemble. Today, the Bavarian Radio ensemble has become the international flagship among Bavarian orchestras, with a long line of prestigious conductors and an impressive discography, while the Munich Radio Orchestra has remained more of a local or regional band with a succession of somewhat lesser luminaries at its helm and a more modest discography. The two orchestral works on this program, however, are not Strauss tone poems or Mahler symphonies. The Antal Doráti Divertimento does call for very large forces, but they are employed in a chamber concerto-like manner. So, in terms of execution, the orchestras on the two competing discs acquit themselves with equal skill.

That leaves three factors: the conductors, the programs, and the recordings themselves. In the Martin?, I think I’d be prepared to say that Goritzki on the present disc has a bit of an edge over Jansons on the Oehms disc, but only because his reading of Martin?’s score strikes me as a bit more idiomatic. Otherwise, the two CDs offer different programs, so the conducting is not a basis for comparison.

It’s when we get to the programs and the recordings that real and dramatic differences emerge. If I didn’t have kind words for Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Oboe Concerto on the Oehms release, other than for its mercifully short duration of just under 14 minutes, I could say much the same of Heinz Holliger’s 1956–57 (revised, 1999) Sonata for Solo Oboe, an equally short soliloquy scripted in four movements of indeterminate tonality alternating between staccato squeaks and squawks and woebegone whining and wailing. Holliger (b. 1939) may be one of the world’s great oboists, but his talent for composition is not apparent from this 13-and-a-half minute piece.

In contrast, Doráti’s Divertimento for Oboe and Orchestra is a masterpiece. New to me, as I imagine it will be to most readers, since I find no other recording of it listed, I was bowled over by the life-affirming vibes put out by this music, by the colorfulness of its orchestration, the luminosity of its textures, and the rapturous beauty of its writing for the oboe. Doráti (1906–88), one of the great podium maestros of the 20th century, was more than an occasional dabbler in composition, and he left behind a legacy of important works in various genres, including a couple of symphonies that have got to be heard to be believed. Doráti’s Divertimento further reinforces my feeling that the great conductor was also a great composer.

If I had to choose between the Oehms and the new MDG discs based solely on their programs, the MDG would win hands down for its inclusion of the Doráti. While the Strauss Oboe Concerto on the Oehms CD is a beautiful work, not only does it seem a bit of an odd discmate for the Martin? and Zimmermann works, but it also enjoys at least two dozen other recordings. The Doráti doesn’t, and its inclusion with the Martin? and Holliger works, even though I don’t care for the latter, makes more sense.

Finally, there is the matter of the recording. And on that score, this MDG SACD wins the contest in a landslide. The sound is spectacular—bright, transparent, detailed, and exceptionally vivid. It was recorded in July 2008, in Munich’s Herkulessaal, and has been engineered to play not only in 5.1 multichannel surround-sound format but also in MDG’s proprietary 2+2+2 format, which requires a sixth speaker mounted above the two front stereo speakers. Setup directions are provided in the booklet, which also contains informative notes in three languages. For those who are not SACD-equipped, not to worry; the disc is fully compatible with standard stereo setup and playback. Outstanding and urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Oboe by Bohuslav Martinu
Performer:  Yeon-Hee Kwak (Oboe)
Conductor:  Johannes Goritzki
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Munich Radio Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1955; Czech Republic 
Venue:  München, Herkulessaal 
Length: 19 Minutes 7 Secs. 
Sonata for solo oboe by Heinz Holliger
Performer:  Yeon-Hee Kwak (Oboe)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Munich Radio Orchestra
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 1956-1957 
Date of Recording: 10/07/2009 
Venue:  Ehemal, Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünste 
Length: 13 Minutes 2 Secs. 
Divertimento for oboe & orchestra by Antal Doráti
Performer:  Yeon-Hee Kwak (Oboe)
Conductor:  Johannes Goritzki
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Munich Radio Orchestra
Period: Contemporary 
Venue:  München, Herkulessaal 
Length: 25 Minutes 16 Secs. 

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