STRAUSS Oboe Concerto. Sonatina No 2
A tempting prospect: a programme of Richard Strauss played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and featuring, in the Oboe Concerto, the Concertgebouw’s own principal oboe, Alexei Ogrintchouk, conducted by the 21st century’s most instinctive Straussian, Andris Nelsons. And as Ogrintchouk pours out the blossoming lines of Strauss’s opening paragraph, the first impressions are encouraging: a rich but focused tone, a melodic give-and-take that feels simultaneously playful and expressive, and Nelsons and the orchestra closely in accord. This is, make no mistake, a fine performance, with orchestral playing that’s strikingly crisp and alert but spacious too (listen to how Nelsons and Ogrintchouk jointly pace the long sunset fade from about 7'00" in the slow movement).
And yet something doesn’t feel entirely right, and I suspect it’s the recorded balance. With Ogrintchouk very much front and centre, details of Strauss’s intricate string textures don’t quite come through, tuttis can jump out with a jolt and even the playful woodwind-and-soloist dialogues in the first movement lack the chamber-music feeling you get from, say, Heinz Holliger and the COE (though some may prefer Ogrintchouk’s altogether creamier tone).
The balance is similarly skewed towards the top in the two works for wind ensemble – a real pity with a horn sound as luscious as the Concertgebouw’s. Ogrintchouk directs a staid account of the youthful Serenade, Op 7, before practically tumbling into the late Sonatina: never less than elegantly played but lacking both the characterisation and the Wagnerian scope of Nicholas Daniel’s recent Aldeburgh version. I’d love to have heard Nelsons conduct these pieces. But as you’d expect from these players, any criticism starts from a high base – and straight, musicianly Strauss might be exactly what you’re after.