Old and jaded mélomanes like myself make a special point of searching out neglected byways of the classical repertoire, pieces and even composers we have never heard (I will not say never heard of) before. The program offered by David Dutton, oboe, William Davis, bassoon, and Beverly Biggs, fortepiano, under the auspices of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, included five works which I expect most listeners had never heard before, either live or on recordings, by performing virtuosos of the oboe and bassoon active in the first half of the 19th century, a period still little touched by musicology beyond the attention given to Viennese masterworks. The program began with a Fantaisie by Philippe Gattermann, a composer unknown to the musical encylopedias, and whose works have returned to the shadows. Here both oboe and bassoon had concertante parts in a work predominantly lyrical and andante, and which moved to a quicker finale. Dutton seemed not quite at ease here – he had not quite gotten his sea-legs under him.
Next up were two works in a genre extremely popular throughout the 19th century but ignored or scorned today – that of the operatic fantasy, in which themes from the popular music dramas of the day were reimagined in a virtuoso way for instrumental performance, frequently as accompanied solos. The arrangements here were from the notable oboist Henri Brod (1799-1839), who perfected his art at the Paris Conservatory. First, from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, we heard a love duet for Lucia and Edgardo, slow, simple, understated (with the two double reeds representing the vocalists), and then the famous "Mad Scene," here for oboe solo with piano. Again I felt that Dutton, though laboring valiantly, was mastered by rather than master of the notes, with a lack of compelling inflection, of expressive rhythm, a nobly directed cantabile line – to sum up, the quality that Castiglione insists is requisite for the gentleman, sprezzatura, the art which conceals art, that allows the listener to believe great beauty may be created with no effort at all.
There followed a "Reverie" for bassoon and piano by Eugene Jancourt (1815-1901, also from Paris), in which Davis showed a masterful singing tone, beautiful legato, and admirable control of the breath. The program closed with the Duo Op. 43, of Brod, a sort of concertino with the oboe and bassoon as dueling soloists, carrying the listeners to a rousing accelerando finale.
A pleasing pastime for a lovely spring afternoon.