This disc takes us back to the early days of the oboe. This instrument was developed around 1660 by the Hotteterre family, a dynasty of instrument makers and musicians. It was soon to be included in various royal ensembles. As everything French held a great attraction for monarchs and aristocrats across Europe the oboe was soon disseminated to other countries and was included in orchestral and chamber music groups. However, repertoire specifically intended for the oboe was by no means common. The first sonata explicitly scored for oboe in France dates from 1723, and was written by Antoine Dornel.
In his liner-notes Christopher Palameta says that the oboe was not suitable for amateurs. "Unlike the traverso or recorder, double-reeds were reserved for professional musicians since the preparation of reeds was a time-consuming and often unrewarding activity whose technique took years to hone and was fiercely guarded by musicians themselves". The second reason for the low take-up of the instrument is a logical consequence of the first. Music publishers printed music for the amateur market, and as there were no amateur players of the oboe music specifically written for that instrument would not sell. As a result many collections were published whose title pages suggested various instruments: the recorder, the transverse flute, the violin, the viola da gamba, and - often mentioned last - the oboe.
Even when alternative instruments are not specifically indicated on the title page their use can be legitimized, for instance in the composer's preface. Marin Marais is a good example: in the preface to his third book of pieces for the viola da gamba he suggests performance on other instruments, among them flute, recorder and oboe and even harpsichord, organ or guitar. Obviously the use of a different instrument sometimes forces the performer to transpose but that was common practice at the time.
Christopher Palameta admits that not every single piece is suitable for his instrument. Sometimes the writing is so idiomatic that it is almost impossible to do a piece justice on an instrument other than the viol. He refers to effects such as pizzicato, multiple stops and unison passages with the bass which in transposition leads to parallel octaves. This probably explains why some suites were put together from different books as the tracklist indicates. That said, the performances on this disc show that Marais's books with music for viol include much material with which players of other instruments can substantially extend their repertoire. One would wish they would follow in Palameta's footsteps and please us with recordings of Marais's music - which belongs among the best written in France at the time - on their respective instruments.
Palameta sets a standard here with fine performances which give the impression that the music was specifically written for the oboe. In his performance the elegance and subtlety which are features of the French style come off very well. There is some dynamic shading but Palameta rightly shows some restraint in this department, and that goes also for the ornamentation. Sometimes I felt that a slight vibrato here and there as a way of ornamenting long lines would not have gone amiss. Another issue is the balance between the oboe and the basso continuo. The latter is a little too far in the background.
These issues are minor details which in now spoilt my enjoyment. This disc should appeal to a wide range of music-lovers.
Johan van Veen