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Heinz Holliger's Soulful Oboe

Channeling Bach: Heinz Holliger revisits some soul-searching music.
Daniel Vass
ECM records
Channeling Bach: Heinz Holliger revisits some soul-searching music.

They say the cello can pull at the heartstrings because it's the instrument closest to the human voice, but you should hear what Heinz Holliger can do with an oboe.

On his new album (released today on ECM), Holliger makes his instrument sing with such profound beauty — both sweetly and sadly — that your heartstrings can feel not just pulled but yanked completely out.

Part of it has to do with the Swiss oboist's opulent tone, still pure and distinctive after more than five decades, and the other key component is J.S. Bach, whose music is the focus of the album. Bach often granted the oboe some of his most ravishing, most soul-searching solos in his vocal and instrumental pieces.

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The album's opening, title track, "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis" (I Have Had Great Worry) is the grief-stricken beginning to Bach's Cantata BWV 21, which he wrote with the death of one of his favorite students fresh in mind. The piece provides a similar catharsis for Holliger, who dedicates the album to the memory of his brother and a friend, who each died shortly before the recording sessions were finished.

You can hear the pain unfold in the oboe's long-breathed sighs of anguish. Its serpentine melody intertwines with the solo violin of Erich Höbarth (who also conducts the satisfying Camerata Bern) and the two play out over a steady heartbeat rhythm like singers in deep lament.

Along with what Holliger calls the "miraculous wealth" of solo parts for oboe in Bach's cantatas and orchestral works are the "lost" concertos he wrote for the instrument. They haven't survived in their original forms, but because the composer recycled them as harpsichord concertos, scholars have been able to craft credible reconstructions.

The best known of these is the double concerto for oboe and violin, BWV 1060, in which Holliger and Höbarth wind gorgeously phrased melodies around each other in the Adagio. There's also another oboe concerto, the high-spirited Concerto for Oboe d'amore and even Alessandro Marcello's Oboe Concerto (which Bach turned into a harpsichord concerto) with its sepulchral slow movement.

Holliger's fans will recognize these concertos as ones he's previously recorded, some twice. But now the 72-year-old oboist, conductor and composer has the advantage of age — the experience of life's joys and sorrows, all of which he pours into this sublime music.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.