The most intensely lyrical of all woodwind instruments, the oboe has a long and distinguished history. Undisputed king of the woodwind during the baroque era, the instrument features heavily throughout Bach’s works as well as appearing in myriad sonatas and concertos by other composers of the period. The arrival of the clarinet in the late eighteenth century rather nudged the instrument out of the limelight. Mozart turned to the clarinet for his last and greatest wind pieces, rather setting the tone for subsequent composers (Brahms, for example, who wrote some of his finest chamber music for clarinet but nothing whatsoever for oboe), although the 20th-century saw many notable additions to the repertoire, including concertos by Richard Strauss and Vaughan Williams, along with Poulenc’s melancholy late sonata.
Venetian nobleman Alessandro Marcello (1673–1747) has a special place in the hearts of all oboists as the composer of what’s thought to be the first ever oboe concerto – although it’s also been attributed to his brother, Benedetto. (Just to add to the confusion, the version of the piece attributed to Alessandro is in D minor, while Benedetto’s is in C minor.) Historic interest apart, the concerto has plenty to recommend it, from the glacial, rather Vivaldian sonorities of the central adagio through to the churning harmonies of the concluding presto. Bach thought it was so good he transcribed it for harpsichord, and there’s no doubting the work’s lasting appeal – irrespective of who actually wrote it, and in which key.
We could have gone for one of Bach’s assorted oboe sonatas or (reconstructed) concertos but we’ve opted instead for his magnificent double concerto – even if you will need to find a violinist to play it with. This is peak Bach, every bit as good as the better known Brandenburg and violin concertos – a surging minor-key masterpiece all the way from its dramatic opening allegro through to its pounding finale – and with one of Bach’s most beautiful adagios between.
Mozart’s solitary oboe concerto still gets the occasional concert outing, but it’s the slightly later oboe quartet (1781) which takes pride of place in his music for the instrument. Written for the virtuoso German oboist Freidrich Ramm, the quartet was designed to showcase recent improvements to the instrument’s design, particularly its upper register (all the way up to a then unprecedented top F) resulting in passages whose stratospheric tessitura still offers a challenge for players today. The gentle opening allegro and soulful D minor adagio make full use of the oboe’s lyrical qualities, while the spritely concluding rondo is a joy from start to finish, most memorably during the famously daring (for 1781) passage where the oboist fires off a swirl of semiquavers in 4/4 against a 6/8 string accompaniment.
4. Beethoven: Oboe Concerto in F major (slow movement)
Who knew that Beethoven wrote an oboe concerto? Composed by the young Beethoven in around 1792, the last copy went missing in 1840 and the entire work was largely forgotten until 1981 when oboist Charles Lehrer reconstructed the slow movement based on sketches in the British Library (alternative versions have since followed) – a solemn and rather beautiful largo, and an intriguing hint at what might have been had the entire work survived.
Schumann’s beautiful Three Romances for oboe (or violin) and piano is the sort of piece which makes you wonder why there aren’t more works by the great 19th-century composers for this most romantic of instruments, showcasing Schumann’s unique lyrical gifts throughout – like a miniature song cycle without words.
6. Vaughan Williams: Oboe Concerto
Melancholy modal harmonies mingle with jaunty folk-style melodies in Vaughan Williams’ enjoyable Concerto for Oboe and Strings of 1944. Written in the depths of World War II (the premiere had to be postponed due to the threat of V1 rocket attacks) the work conjurs up a timeless vision of peaceful pastoral certainties at a time of global calamity, perhaps most memorably in the central “Minuet and Musette” – a vision of Merrie England at its musical best.
7. Richard Strauss: Oboe Concerto
Written in the aftermath of World War II at the suggestion of American soldier (and former principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony) John de Lancie, Strauss’s Oboe Concerto (1945) is one of the composer’s final works, an unashamedly backward-looking homage to the lost musical world of the composer’s youth. The outer movements are particularly beautiful, spinning a seemingly endless thread of melody over the constantly shifting sands of Strauss’s sumptuous late-romantic harmonies – one of the oboe repertoire’s ultimate musical and technical challenges.
8. Henri Dutilleux: Oboe Sonata
French composer Henri Dutilleux was one of the 20th-century’s great musical free spirits, charting a uniquely personal course over a compositional career spanning almost 75 years. His oboe sonata (1947) offers an enjoyable snapshat of the composer’s earlier, quasi-neoclassical style (think Stravinsky meets Poulenc, with a dash of Ravel) – full of harmonic invention, melodic caprice and a certain, enjoyably indefinable je ne sais quoi.
9. Britten: Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, op.49
The best piece for unaccompanied oboe ever written, Britten’s six “metamorphoses” (1951) offer a sustained test of even the finest oboist’s technique and musicality, from the improvisatory, senza misura “Pan” to the puckish “Phaeton” and, perhaps best and most challenging of all, the cascading semiquavers and chromatic swirls of “Arethusa”.
10. Poulenc: Oboe Sonata
Poulenc’s late, elegaic oboe sonata (1962) is a staple of the repertoire, and deservedly so. The sumptuous, autumnal harmonies of the opening “Elégie” lead via a brief, manic scherzo to the desolate concluding “Déploration”, said to have been the last music Poulenc composed before his death. The sonata might look relatively harmless on the page but makes considerable challenges of players’ tone and intonation in extreme registers – while the high, exposed opening bars can test the nerves of even seasoned performers.