The Single Oboe Theory: Ensemble Sonnerie’s Bach Orchestral Suites

Listen to the Story

Ensemble Sonnerie's recording of J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suites simply can't be topped for compelling historical interpretation and sheer beauty of sound.(Photo:
Ensemble Sonnerie's recording of J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suites simply can't be topped for compelling historical interpretation and sheer beauty of sound.(Photo:

A 2009 Grammy nominee, Ensemble Sonnerie‘s recent recording of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suites, Orchestral Suites for a Young Prince, simply can’t be topped for compelling historical interpretation and sheer beauty of sound.

The fleshier cousin of Monica Huggett’s Trio Sonnerie, Huggett’s Ensemble Sonnerie boasts on a chamber orchestra scale all the elegance for which Huggett’s world-class smaller chamber group has long been known.

On Orchestral Suites for a Young Prince, the group’s performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite in A minor, BWV 1067 is especially interesting. This work is more often heard in the key of B minor and with a flute very clearly in the solo role.

Ensemble Sonnerie, however, has recorded it in what is now generally accepted as its original key and instrumentation, more an orchestral work with occasional solo passages for oboe than a platform for a single solo instrument, usually flute.

What gives us the idea that A minor was the suite’s original key?

Well, mostly a bread-crumb trail of manuscript errors and problematic instrumental balance. Way back when, Bach and a clutch of music copyists transcribed the work from a now lost original manuscript, and copyists’ errors betray the work’s original lower key.

The B minor version was less comfortable to play on stringed instruments and on the flute (at least a flute like that which may have been played during Bach’s day – as a flutist, I can’t say the B minor key poses any particular discomfort on the modern instrument).

Performers have also recognized problems in balance between a solo flute and the accompanying strings, a problem not solved when, as is sometimes done, the violin is featured in the solo role.

So the question is: if the suite really was originally composed in A minor and if the original solo instrument was neither a flute nor a violin, what instrument was originally intended to play the solo passages?

Oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz says – um – the oboe likely was the star of this show.

His reconstruction of this suite, in which the oboe is given the flute part, is what appears on Ensemble Sonnerie’s recording.

In the booklet that accompanies Orchestral Suites for a Young Prince, Ruiz writes that this recording, on which he plays the solo parts on his oboe, demonstrates to opponents of the single oboe theory that the oboe is the ideal solo instrument for the A minor version of this suite.

Comfort is the rationale behind Ruiz’s assertion, and judging from his booklet notes, playing the solo part of this suite (in A minor) on the oboe must feel like butter. If the oboists are happy, we’re all happy.

What I like about this choice of instrumentation – and Ensemble Sonnerie’s performance of the suite with it – is that it’s so much more democratic than the B minor version we’re now so accustomed to hearing performed on the flute.

Most flute recordings of the suite showcase a modern, precious-metal flute designed to produce a sound bright and piercing enough to cut through large, heavy Mahler/Wagner orchestras the likes of which Bach never knew.

The flute part is also often mixed to high heaven over the rest of the orchestra. One gets the sense that the flute is a queen bee around which the worker bees of strings and harpsichord buzz.

Flutist Emmanuel Pahud’s recording of this suite (in B minor), though brilliant, nonetheless throws the spotlight clearly on the soloist.

In the Menuet movement, Pahud’s flute is clearly the stand-out sound on the Berlin recording, while on Ensemble Sonnerie’s recording Ruiz’s oboe is better integrated into the texture of the orchestral fabric:

Pahud/Berlin Baroque Soloists – Menuet:

[audio src=""]

Ruiz/Ensemble Sonnerie – Menuet:

[audio src=""]

To be clear, in my view, neither approach is better than the other; each simply makes a different statement about the role of the “solo” part vis-à-vis the whole. In the Pahud/Berlin recording, the flute reigns acoustically supreme.

In Ensemble Sonnerie’s recording the oboe is soloist in a number of short licks here and there throughout the work, but very often has a more understated presence in the overall orchestral sound.

The oboe is no prima donna; instead, it’s a comrade of the orchestra’s other instruments, albeit one the other instruments have seemingly elected to do their bidding for them now and then with the commanders, the arbiters of taste, namely us, the listeners.

Sound a bit socialist?  There is a theory out there that Bach’s orchestral music does reflect his views on social structures of his day.

In his book The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton University Press, 1995), Michael Marissen argues that the instrumentation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which perhaps for our purposes here we can to some extent consider first cousins of the orchestral suites, can be read as a mirror and a “product” (his word) of the social hierarchies, particularly those of the court for which the Brandenburgs were composed.

In Ensemble Sonnerie’s recording, the oboe is generally, to my ear, “not contrasted” from the rest of the orchestra “by oboistic treatment” (to borrow Marissen’s phraseology) and thus the nature of the oboe’s music bridges “the social distance” between this instrument and the rest of the ensemble (again, to paraphrase Marissen).

Of course, Bach composed his orchestral suites in a context different from that in and for which he composed the Brandenburg Concertos, and a suite (a set of movements on stylizations of archaic courtly dance forms) is a different genre from a concerto.  These are factors that, on deeper study, may put flies in the ointment.

Even if you don’t buy Marissen’s theory of the Brandenburgs’ egalitarianism (or my grafting of it onto Bach’s Orchestral Suite), and even if you’d be just as happy to hear BWV 1067 performed with a solo nose trombone, you have a treat in store for you in Orchestral Suites for a Young Prince.

Just listen and enjoy.

This article was originally published December 10, 2009.