The pleasure of Albrecht Mayer’s oboe at Vancouver’s Chan Centre

08/11/2019

CanadaCanada Haydn, Mozart, Fiala: Albrecht Mayer (oboe, English horn and director), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Chan Centre, Vancouver, 25.10.2019. (GN)

Albrecht Mayer and the VSO. © Matthew Baird

MozartCosi fan tutte K588, Overture
Haydn – Concerto for Oboe in C major (attributed); Symphony No.94 in G major, Surprise
Fiala – Concerto for English Horn in C major

Following upon legendary flutist James Galway and clarinetist Karl Leister, oboist Albrecht Mayer is the latest member of the Berlin Philharmonic’s wind section to pursue a career as a soloist. Over the past decade, he has recorded five theme-based CDs for Deutsche Grammophon, highlighting oboe compositions on the classical/baroque boundary, mingled with delectable shorter pieces. In the current VSO concert, he added his skills as a conductor. There is always an abiding pleasantness to an oboe concert, and that is what one felt here. As witnessed in the Haydn (attr.) and Fiala concertos, Mayer is a refined and tonally pleasing exponent of both the oboe and English horn, wrapping his effortless virtuosity in great beauty. Along with his purity of line and crisp agility, the creamy, mellifluous quality of his tone stands out, possibly registering some debt to his Berlin Phil predecessor Lothar Koch and his teacher Maurice Bourgue.

The Haydn Oboe Concerto has long held a place in the repertory; one might recall the original Rothwell/Barbirolli and Hanták/Newstone recordings of the 1960s. At that time, the work was listed as an authentic Haydn composition, yet the assertive trumpet-and-drums style of its opening movement always struck me as not fitting Haydn’s concerto style. It wasn’t surprising when it came to light that the work was not by Haydn but possibly Malzat or Stamitz. In any event, Mayer’s oboe playing was delightful, fluent and cheery, full of virtuoso grace and dynamic contrast, but not skimping on the gravity of the minor key modulations. There was interesting ornamentation in the Andante, where the playing had a smooth, plush elegance, and the precision and point of his runs, especially in the softer passages, were marvelous.

If there was a qualification, it was the heaviness and squareness of the orchestral contribution, which focussed on structural emphasis (at cautious tempos) rather than rhythmic buoyancy. Mayer performed the work play/direct, conducting mainly in the tuttis, so perhaps one should not expect perfection, especially with an orchestra of over 40 players. Mayer’s recordings thus far have involved mainly smaller orchestras, including one with the ‘authentic’ English Concert on Decca. There, one might have worried about the matching of a modern oboe with an authentic troupe; here the matching of the oboe with modern forces was in line, but the textures seemed a little ample.

The slighter concerto by Josef Fiala was more to scale, and it revealed that Mayer’s English horn virtuosity is indistinguishable from his finesse on the oboe. The performance was a pleasure: tasteful and balanced throughout. The highlight was the Adagio cantabile, where concertmaster Nicholas Wright’s affecting violin joined in, and there were some intriguing tonguing techniques in the finale. The limpid legato lines of a new arrangement of a Bach cantata marked the encore.

As a maestro, Mayer showed that he is conscientious in establishing rhythmic solidity and in detailing, especially with the winds. But perhaps slightly too much so: the excessive care in execution reminded me of another exalted wind player, the (late) Frans Brüggen, when he was first finding his legs as a conductor in the early 1980s. In Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte Overture, Mayer devoted considerable attention to the string accents while bringing out wind blends in a way that reminded one of the composer’s great Serenades, but the approach ended up too smooth and deliberate to generate much frisson. Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony certainly aimed for more drama: the music was pared almost to inaudibility before the loud ‘surprise’ in the famous Andante, and the dance rhythms in the Menuetto were given unusual colour though with some extended rallentandi. However, despite some teasing string and wind textures, the deliberation and weight in the first movement made the progress of the Vivace assai seem sectionalized, not moved compulsively forward by the work’s flow of delight. This was big-boned, considered Haydn: bigger than Otto Klemperer’s, I thought. Cohesion was probably best achieved in the finale, which allowed more of the work’s zest and spirit to spring forth.

Qualifications aside, it was a most pleasant evening with a master of two very difficult instruments, and some fine playing from the VSO.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

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