Heinz Holliger soars through Bach’s music for oboe in his first ECM recital of core classical repertoire since his 1997 account of Zelenka’s Trio Sonatas. Recorded at Radio Studio Zürich in December 2010, “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis”, draws upon Holliger’s long artistic relationship with Camerata Bern and leader Eric Höbarth, the production rendering every detail in the music, the elegance of Holliger’s phrasing, the tactile sound of baroque bows on gut strings, crystal clear. Holliger dedicates this very special recording to the memory of his brother, theatre director Erich Holliger, and Gabriel Bürgin, pianist, friend and colleague.
Johann Sebastian Bach relied on the oboe to voice some of the most exquisite instrumental passages in his cantatas and orchestral works, these solo parts adding up to what Heinz Holliger terms a "miraculous wealth" of music for the oboe. Holliger, one of the world's consummate oboists for five decades now, as well as a prize-winning composer and conductor –presents a collection of this music drawn from the sinfonia introductions to several sacred cantatas, the sinfonia from the Easter Oratorio and versions of three Bach concertos made for oboe, strings and continuo. These include the sublime Double Concerto for Violin and Oboe, with the solo violin part played by Erich Höbarth, who also directs the Camerata Bern throughout the album. Also included is Alessandro Marcello's Oboe Concerto in D minor, a piece Bach appreciated enough to rework for solo harpsichord.
“Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” translates as "I had much affliction.” The title is drawn from Bach's cantata BWV 21, the largest of his sacred cantatas and a journey from the dark of grief to the light of hope, written for the death of a young prince, one of Bach's favourite pupils. Bach also performed the cantata later after the sudden death of his first wife. This cantata's sinfonia is a wondrous creation full of sighing chromatic melody for the solo oboe, garlanded by violins. Holliger – who has written his own liner notes for the album, detailing the often complicated provenance of the various pieces – describes Bach's oboe sinfonias as "among the towering masterpieces of the entire repertoire for the instrument."
Another of these masterpieces for oboe is the sinfonia to the cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” ("Weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing"), BWV 12. Holliger characterizes this deeply affecting sinfonia as "a winding, broadly arched dirge," its long lines marked by bold harmonies and a heart-stopping fermata. Also included is the adagio introduction to Part II of the Easter Oratorio, a B minor sinfonia in which the richly ornamented melody of the oboe "floats almost weightlessly" above an ostinato sarabande played by the strings. The album's other oboe sinfonia – a consoling, aria-like adagio taken from the cantata “Ich steh' mit einem Fuss im Grab”e ("I stand with one foot in the grave") – serves as the slow movement for Holliger's version of the Oboe Concerto in D minor, BWV 1059. Many listeners will recognise this music from the slow movement to Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in F minor; the composer – an enthusiastic arranger of his music and that of others – borrowed it from its original place in the cantata.
None of Bach's original concertos for oboe survived what Holliger calls, quoting Hegel, the "fury of disappearance." Yet all of the composer's harpsichord concertos and many of his cantata movements and organ trio sonatas originated in his early concertos and chamber music for wind instruments or violin. Scholars have since reconstructed, as Holliger puts it, "the putative shape of this lost repertoire," making versions of the music that satisfy contemporary standards of authenticity. The best known of all Bach's "recovered" concertos is the Double Concerto for Violin and Oboe, BWV 1060. (It is often played in D minor, but Holliger finds C minor more persuasively idiomatic.) The oboist has often pointed out the ways in which Bach's music pushes the physical possibilities of a performer to the limit, particularly in terms of breathing for wind players. Yet in this work of life-affirming beauty, Holliger matches violinist Erich Höbarth in dialogue that is glorious, poignant and thrilling by turns.
The album's other Bach concerto is BWV 1055, the A Major Concerto for Oboe d'amore, the instrument Holliger calls the oboe's "deeper, gentler companion." This recording is his third of the work, after a first in 1965 and the second in 1982. Gramophone magazine lauded Holliger's playing of the Larghetto in BWV 1055 on his '80s Philips recording as "deeply searching," but this latest performance for ECM could scarcely be more poetically phrased, with the subtlest degrees of light and shade. The famous Marcello concerto is an ever-popular Italian Baroque gem and another piece that Holliger has recorded multiple times; there are reasons for this, including a central Adagio that sees the oboe sing a long-breathed aria of almost heartbreaking poise over the dramatic pulse of the strings.
In Höbarth and the players of Switzerland's Camerata Bern, Holliger has an ideally sympathetic team; the group's balance of a rich sound with fluent tempi and general dynamism reflects contemporary views of music the oboist has approached repeatedly over decades of changing tastes. In his liner essay, Holliger refers to the inspiration in Bach's oboe writing as "virtually inexhaustible." Something similar could be said about this veteran oboist's musicianship and his ability to commune with the transcendent and timeless in art.
Heinz Holliger was born in 1939 in Langenthal, Switzerland, in the canton of Bern. He studied composition with Sándor Veress and Pierre Boulez. He took first prize for oboe at the Geneva International Music Competition in 1959, eventually becoming one of the world's most esteemed oboists; composers who have written works for him include Frank Martin, Olivier Messiaen, Witold Lutoslawski, Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Elliott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Krzysztof Penderecki and Isang Yun. Holliger was also instrumental in the rediscovery of works by 18th-century composers Zelenka and Lebrun. As a composer, Holliger's oeuvre covers genres from orchestral, solo and chamber music to stage works and vocal pieces; he has won many prizes, from the Siemens Music Award in 1991 to the first Zurich Festival Award in 2007. Many of his compositions have been recorded by ECM, on albums including “Lieder ohne Worte” (2000), Scardanelli-Zyklus (vocal works after Hölderlin, 2000), “Schneewittchen” ("Snow White," opera, 2001), “Violinkonzert” (2004) and “Romancendres” (2009). As a conductor, he recorded an ECM album of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's music titled “Canto di speranza”, in addition to leading recordings of his own works. As an oboist, he has recorded music for ECM by the likes of Zelenka, Schumann, Veress, Carter and Isang Yun.
In Europe, “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” is issued simultaneously with an album of Holliger’s music, “Induulchen” (ECM New Series 2201). The two releases follow on from three earlier New Series discs in 2011 with Holliger’s music and/or participation: Alexander Lonquich recorded Holliger’s “Partita” alongside Schumann’s “Kreisleriana”; the album “Manto and Madrigals” featured “Drei Skizzen” from Holliger written especially for Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius; and Jörg Widmann’s album “Elegie” found the resourceful Holliger in his first recording as a pianist, duetting with clarinettist/composer Widmann on “Fünf Bruchstücke”.