There is something infinitely likeable about Albrecht Mayer’s oboe. Principal with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1992, Mayer has also enjoyed a successful concert schedule and released a number of fine recordings. Apart from his stunning articulation and phrasing, his playing somehow imparts the sense of peace and upbeat joy that all of us aspire to. Other critics have called his work “simply Heavenly”, a “harbour of serenity” − attributes that certainly showed themselves in the Zurich programme.

Albrecht Mayer © Benjamin Ealovega
Albrecht Mayer
© Benjamin Ealovega

The great masters Vivaldi and Bach were both represented, but the programme also gave an introduction to lesser known Baroque composers. First up, for example, were excerpts from Johann Bernhard Bach's Suite in D major for strings and continuo. Likely written before 1730, the concerto was one of four surviving orchestral suites we attribute to the composer, who was, incidentally, JS Bach’s second cousin. Scored for seven musicians, Emanuele Forni played the lute, seamlessly alternating his instrument with the Baroque guitar throughout the evening.

Yet that first piece itself largely lacked lustre by comparison with what followed. Alessandro Marcello's Oboe Concerto in D minor, for example, is a work that represents “a last outpost of the classic Venetian Baroque concerto”. The work startled from the beginning, not the least because of the venue. The flexible wooden underpinnings of the historic Tonhalle stage are often likened to those used in shipbuilding, and that feature beautifully showcased Mayer’s silvery-sounding oboe. In the Andante e spiccato, he swayed with violist Janka Szomor-Mekis in a musical dialogue, launching into dance steps the other standing players were quick to adapt. Particularly in the Presto, Mayer gave us a sweet flourish that might be called − had the words not already been assigned – the ultimate lightness of being.

Antonio Vivaldi's Sonata in C minor RV83 came right before the break, and his Oboe Concerto in G minor just afterwards. In both pieces, Mayer explored the harmonic contrasts and innovative melodies that have often been cited as playfully exuberant. The oboist entered into tonal exchanges with the sublime, bronzy tones of Nicola Mosca’s cello. The intimate sequences of Noaki Kitaya’s harpsichord may have begged for a smaller hall, for its sound was sometimes a tad thin, but overall, the balance among instruments and volumes were nicely tempered.

Mayer’s posture in the Vivaldi concerto set a marker for confidence and cantered stance. Sometimes with legs akimbo, his oboe almost like an outright limb, he looked as commanding as the Colossus of Rhodes. Entering into conversations with each of the players, he teased with his adept ornamentation, questioned with upward slides, and set tight and pointed endings vehemently. The highly expressive Largo was begun by the harpsichord, continued by the lute, then joined by the oboe and cello; it didn’t even include the strings. Yet Vivaldi’s formal and rhythmic structure held the continuo line in tow and propelled the voices forward nevertheless.

Francesco Saverio Geminiani's Concerto Grosso in D minor after Arcangelo Corelli's “La Follia” was a familiar piece. With a repetitive yarn running like the warp and weft of a tapestry, it also includes pointed allusions to the sounds of nature, a fair degree of syncopation and some blatant humour. Concertmaster Willi Zimmermann’s warp-speed solo amused us at one juncture, which was hugely refreshing.

Andreas Tarkmann − who used movements from three Johann Sebastian Bach cantatas to fashion a “pasticcio”− arranged  Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra after Cantatas BWV 105, 170 und 49. And in its Allegro, Mayer bounced his chin up and down like a rock star or a hopeful presidential candidate, the others keeping pace with him ably. The Andante included a melodic line that underscored Bach’s contrapuntal genius, and in the Adagio, Mayer’s “conversation” posed musical questions, offered answers, made propositions, and amicably conceded to other players, including Seon-Deok Baik, double bass, and Daria Zappa Matesic, violin. 

German himself, Mayer explained at the end of the evening that he considered G.F. Händel “the finest composer ever to come out of England.” Given that, his choice of encore “Lascia ch'io pianga…” from Handel’s opera “Rinaldo” came as no surprise. Relished by the players as much as by us listeners, the final piece was proof that music bridges persuasions, cultures and nations alike.