HERITAGE HTGCD400 [4 CDs] Review

Albinoni, Telemann, & Handel oboe concertos (1988 - 1994)



Sarah Francis’s highly acclaimed performances of the complete solo oboe concertos of Albinoni, the complete oboe concertos and sonatas of Handel and the complete concertos of Telemann are reissued here for the first time. The recordings, from the late 1980s and early 1990s, are sourced from the Unicorn label. The accompanying booklet includes a highly informative essay by 18th century music authority Nicholas Anderson.

Having listened to the performances captured on the CDs it’s very hard to disagree with the laudatory quotations from American Record Guide, BBC Music Magazine and the Penguin Guide that are printed on the reverse of the CD box. This is oboe playing of the highest quality in terms of technical assurance and musicality.

The Albinoni concertos, from St Giles, Cripplegate in 1988, are beautifully recorded with the soloist well forward and the strings placed behind her in a warm, realistic acoustic. I’m no fan of period instrument performances so this is right up my street. The string tone is full and sweet with a subtle use of vibrato and a keen sense of rhythm. Oboe and orchestra play as a team especially in the faster dance movements where there is a tangible sense of vitality and interplay. Special mention must be made here of the unobtrusive contribution of Christopher Kite on harpsichord. These concertos are packed with gorgeous central slow movements and Sarah Francis plays them all very sensuously. A lovely set full of sunshine.

The Handel (1685-1759) concertos, recorded in St. Michael’s Church, Highgate in 1994, are captured in a denser soundstage when compared to the Albinoni disc. The soloist is very much part of the orchestral texture and I would personally have preferred her to be somewhat more separated from her colleagues. Handel is always structurally innovative with a varied use of counterpoint. Handel’s music - to these ears at any rate - strikes me as being far more rewarding and interesting to listen to for these reasons. There can be no complaints whatsoever when it comes to the sound quality of the sonatas. Balance is impeccable with a highly attractive singing oboe tone throughout and the harpsichord is set at an appropriate distance. This is another disc to marvel at.

The last two CDs from St. Michael’s Church Highgate, 1993, are devoted to Telemann (1671-1751) and the musical and technical standards set in the Albinoni and Handel discs are maintained. Yet again it’s very obvious from the outset that Sarah Francis loves this music. Her playing is absolutely captivating with beautiful tone and clear articulation allied to fabulous intonation and phrasing. Telemann’s music is full of melody and invention. It somehow marries the intellectual skill of Handel and the sunshine of Albinoni. As such, these two discs are actually the highlight of the collection. The recording is exemplary - clear, well balanced and sparkling. Telemann Volume 2 finishes off with a real beauty: the Triple concerto in E major for flute, oboe d’amore and viola d’amore. What a bright and breezy, captivating piece this is. Sarah Francis turns her hand to the oboe d’amore and she is admirably supported by Graham Mayger (flute) and Elizabeth Watson (viola d’amore).

With thanks to John Whitmore and musicweb-international (October, 2013)