As a lagniappe to his week of conducting the BSO, Christoph Eschenbach appeared on March 4 in his original pianist guise as accompanist to BSO Assistant Principal Oboe Keisuke Wakao in a recital sponsored by the American-Japanese Cultural Concert Series at Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill. Wakao runs this series as well as the church’s own concert programs. This one was billed as a benefit concert, although neither the program nor the signage at the event specified qui bonit. We were told unofficially that the benefit was for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The series itself predates these events and was described as the third annual one, although the next program to be held in April is listed as number four. Whatever the chronology, this event attracted a large audience that appeared to contain significant numbers of Boston’s small but active Japanese community.
The program consisted entirely of work from the Western classical canon: Schumann’s Three Romances for oboe and piano, op. 94, and oboe transcriptions of his op. 70 Adagio and Allegro in A-flat, originally for horn, and Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat, K. 454. The transcriber(s) of the latter two were not credited. The former has been recorded by various artists, so must be a staple item, whereas the latter has not; is Wakao’s the hand at work? The collaboration between Wakao and Eschenbach reflects their long history (they first met when Wakao was a member of the New World Symphony 25 years ago) and an avuncular professional relationship of friendship and tutelage.
The Schumann Romances exist in versions for clarinet and violin, but in their original form represent a rare composition for oboe by a composer of the German Romantic era. They date from 1849 and appear to have been intended as a set, which is a bit odd in that they are mostly similar in affect: slow and contemplative, with some contrasting elements, notably in the third. Wakao produced a suitably dreamy and liquid sound, sometimes so wistful that in low registers one could confound it with an English horn. His changes of register were effortless and inaudible, and he exhibited delicacy and prudence in phrasing, particularly in the gentle tailing-off that demands precise mouth and breath control. For his part, Eschenbach kept discreetly in the shadows, aided (if that’s the right word) by the strange positioning of the piano at something like two o’clock to the audience, with the player’s back to the house, so that even at full stick most of the sound hove off to the side.
The critical element in listening to a transcription is to be persuaded that the work had always been meant for the instrument on which it is being performed. Considering the vast differences in sonority between the French horn and the oboe, that would be a fairly tall order in the case of the Adagio and Allegro, but we are pleased to report that not only the unnamed transcriber but Wakao too managed to achieve just this effect. His beautifully shaped phrases and dynamic inflections squeezed every drop of Romantic juice out of the slow introduction — more like a full movement — and then projected very creditable power out of the Allegro, where of course the oboe cannot fully emulate the horn’s capabilities. What it can do, however, is what Wakao did, which is to execute staccato passages nimbly through precision double-tonguing.
Substituting an oboe for a violin is in some respects an easier proposition than doing so for a horn. The second half of the program was given over to Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 32, dating from 1784. One unusual feature is the long slow introduction to the first movement. As mature Mozart, the entire work is that master’s characteristic blend of charm, depth, and perfect balance, demonstrating equal respect for both instruments. Eschenbach was all grace and discretion, being as good as he needed to be without unnecessary bravura. Wakao projected a powerful intensity in the introduction that is not so easy to achieve on the violin, and then again played to his instrument’s strengths in staccato passages. The fast music of the first and third movements evoked a kind of life-imitates-art sensibility, or at least one of the original imitating the copy: on an oboe, this echt-Mozart sounded to us like Poulenc’s evocations at a century and a half’s remove. One further observation should suffice: as we are not intimately familiar with this sonata in its original form, we can’t comment on the extent to which the transcription varied it, but the phrase lengths of the violin/oboe music were perfectly tailored to the wind player’s need to take breaths. This is either a nod to the transcriber in choosing what to tackle, or a sign of the transcriber’s skill in adapting one medium to another.
The duo concluded with two encores. The first, an unintentional one attributable to a spot of bother over music left in the green room, was a reprise of the Allegro from the Schumann op. 70, while the second was a most affecting rendition of “Das Wirtshaus” from Schubert’s Die Winterreise.