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May/June 2009, "Fanfare" magazine, USA

I must say that I was not familiar with either Alexei Utkin or his Hermitage Chamber Orchestra, but having heard them, now can confidently assert that the stratagems and technical proficiencies of the worldwide period-instrument movement have found a very confident home in Moscow, stylistically speaking. This is very proficient and lovely oboe-playing by almost any standard, and surpasses much of what I have heard in the genre the last 15 or so years. Utkin has a splendid sound, and his modern instrument group possesses a rare intelligence and natural instinct for bringing Bach's goods to light.
This is actually the third disc devoted to the music of Bach for oboe (the first having contained the Suite No. I), and we get two more of the orchestral suites here, Nos. 2 and 4, the former having been transcribed to A Minor to better fit the oboe's needs, as it here replaces the flute. I like the way it is played, but I do not like the fact that the flute is absent, because so much of Bach's timbres seem to suggest that the flute is not really optional here, no matter how clever the reworking. I also question how much of a work for oboe is the Fourth Suite. While the original (now lost) C6then version of the work had trios of trumpets and oboes, there is nothing specifically in the music that singles out the oboes for exaggerated limelight. Bach's reworking of the piece later reduced the number to two, but here we have the first version. The performances are actually very fine, though I remain sold on Martin Pearlman's Telarc recording of all four suites as my new benchmark, one of the few times I have allowed period instruments to set my own personal standards. And I do have a slight issue with taking a whole suite down a notch key-wise just for the solo instrument.
BWV I059r is, like all of the oboe concertos, a compendium from other sources, some known, some (like the second movement) a little more uncertain. But it doesn't matter - there can be little doubt that Bach provided material for some of these works as few composers have written as effectively for the instrument in history, and Bach was never one to withhold music when there was the possibility of any sort of performance. The outer two movements are well known to all, and the concerto has a rightness about it that makes all but the most impatient of musicological inquiries irrelevant.
So this is well played and perhaps slightly less well conceived, obviously worth the time from a musical standpoint, but perhaps might make one question whether the predominance of the orchestral suites steer the whole concept off track, as they are not primarily meant to show off oboe technique. For me, I would not buy this just to have two of the suites, but I would hate for anyone to miss such fine playing as this. If you want to sample, the second volume full of Bach's wonderful concertos is probably the one to get.
Steven E. Ritter


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