Edo de Waart/Heinz Holliger, oboe. New Philharmonia Orchestra (1970)
With de Waart and Holliger, we at least see the rough outlines of the piece. The listener can tell that motives develop throughout the work, even though de Waart doesn't do much to bring out the argument. Holliger plays with technical assurance and with very little insight into the nature of the music. Further, de Waart doesn't give him much guidance and insists on treating the work as the usual star vehicle for the soloist, thereby throwing away much of the interest of the piece.
Rudolf Kempe/Manfred Clement, oboe. Dresden State Orchestra (1975)
I can't imagine a technically better performance. Kempe and the Dresdeners realize the Strauss ensemble ideal without losing the emotion by "playing careful." Clement is exemplary. He sings wonderfully and, unlike Holliger, knows when to give way to others in the group. If I nitpicked, I'd add that at times you hear the clatter of the keys, and he's a bit cool emotionally, particularly in the last movement.
Max Wilcox/John de Lancie, oboe. Uncredited orchestra (1987)
The oboist who suggested Strauss write the concerto in the first place happily turns in the best reading of all. Technically, he's miles beyond every other soloist, perhaps excepting Holliger, and he penetrates to the emotional core of the work like no one else. He phrases beautifully, astonishingly so, almost like a great cellist, pressing forward and holding back at points of subtle surprise without sounding like an organ swell pedal. Wilcox provides an even more translucent ensemble texture than Kempe, perhaps due to better engineering, but he doesn't have Kempe's emotional commitment. Still, de Lancie raises this recording into the Kempe/Clement rank.
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Gordon Hunt, oboe. Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin (1991)
In this reading, Ashkenazy makes his closest approach yet to the orchestral sound of late Strauss. Gordon Hunt helps with a solid understanding of the solo part and lovely tone. His fingerwork clatters less than Clement's but more than de Lancie's. Ashkenazy draws a sumptuous sound from the Berliners, but this comes at the expense of clarity. Still, you get enough of the ensemble counterpoint to comprehend Strauss' intentions. Nevertheless, the orchestra seems to hesitate; the clarity they achieve comes about because no one puts himself forward, no matter how briefly. The slow movement comes off best, possibly because it's the most lightly scored, but also because it elicits a committed response from Hunt.
Amati/Sonomaster SRR 9205/1
Wojciech Rajski/Simon Dent, oboe. Polish Chamber Philharmonic (1993)
After a loggy start, the group catches fire at the first big tutti.
From there, this becomes one of the most delightful performances overall. Kempe and the Dresden play with more polish, and de Lancie beats out Dent. Still, this reading keeps that kind of company. The first movement is both warm and shy. In the second, Dent sings with intensity, and the orchestra matches him. The account of this movement is probably one of the slowest on record, but Rajski and Dent bring it off, with a strong line that stretches but never breaks. They convince you this is one of the finest slow movements since Mozart, not bad in a piece many have thought written with Strauss' left hand. In the third movement, everybody dances – puckish in the imitative rondo, gracious in the final waltz. Here, I find it difficult to conceive of a conductor at all: every instrumentalist seems to impress as an individual. Not even Kempe realizes the chamber ideal so well.
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