RAY STILL: A Chicago Legend. Baroque Oboe Sonatas by J. S. Bach, Handel, Telemann and Vivaldi (individual works listed in review).
Ray Still, oboe; Leonard Sharrow (bassoon, in Handel, Telemann & Vivaldi); Robert Conant (harpsichord, in Telemann & Vivaldi); Thomas Willis (harpsichord, in Bach)
Nimbus NI5672
(F) [ADD in Bach/DDD]  TT: 70:30

Almost all of the great oboists here and abroad have been orchestra principals and teachers (unlike the Swiss Heinz Holliger, for example, who left the Basel Symphony early on to be a solo player specializing in post-WW2, avant garde repertory). In the first half of the 20th Century, the stellar stateside players were Marcel Tabuteau in Philadelphia, Bruno Labate and later Robert Bloom in the New York Philharmonic, Fernand Gillet in the Boston Symphony, and (albeit at a distance) Florian Mueller in the Chicago Symphony. Of their successors—who have included John de Lancie in Philadelphia and John Mack in Cleveland—Ray Still became the most celebrated, not only for his musicianship on Chicago Symphony recordings from 1954 through Georg Solti's 22-year regime, but as a soloist on discs conducted by Claudio Abbado and James Levine for DGG and RCA, respectively.

As a teenager Still played in the Los Angeles WPA Orchestra that Otto Klemperer and Albert Coates conducted, and at 19 became assistant principal in the fledgling Kansas City (MO) Philharmonic. After service in WW2, he came east, studied with Gillet and Bloom, joined the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1947 as principal oboe for two seasons, and then the Baltimore Symphony for four years (where he also taught at the Peabody Institute). In 1953 he found himself on the horns of a dilemma: either become associate principal of the New York Philharmonic (whose first oboist, Harold Gomberg, was leading a campaign from within to bring down Dimitri Mitropoulos, with outside help from Howard Taubman in The New York Times), or become assistant principal in Chicago, where Fritz Reiner had just been appointed music director. He chose Chicago, and when Mueller retired at the end of the 1953-54 season, Still became principal in 1954 for the next 40 years—beyond Georg Solti, into the current Barenboim era.

This and more is contained in a generous program book, not well written but full of information, including a Reiner-Still face-off that has made anecdotal rounds for half a century. Unhappy with Still's phrasing in a symphony of Beethoven, Reiner asked goadingly, "Haff you played this piece before?" When Still (no sycophant he, conductor irrespective) replied indignantly that he had, many times, Reiner looked over his half-moon glasses and said, "It must haff been in Bahl-ti-more...vit de Oh-ree-oles!" (Sidebar: the year was 1954, the Orioles' first year as a Baltimore team. But then Reiner was a sports' fan, surprise!, even if his off-stage exercise was limited to summertime swimming in a pool on his Connecticut estate, and pushing away from the table after a high-cholesterol dinner of his mother's recipes, collected by Reiner's third wife, and ultimately his widow.)

The contents of this disc is chamber music, whereas Still's recording with Abbado was the Mozart Concerto, K. 314—not in DGG's current lists, for shame!—while live performances of the Strauss concerto with Reiner and other conductors survive on broadcast tapes. The newest performance here is a transcription of Bach's B minor Flute Sonata (BWV 1030, transposed to G minor), digitially recorded at Stockholm in 1986 with his son Thomas on harpsichord. The rest date from 1974, analog recordings originally made in Chicago with fellow virtuoso Leonard Sharrow, starting with two Handel sonatas—the authentic C minor, HWV 366, of 1711-12, and a transcription of the G minor for Violin (published as Op. 1, No. 6, here listed as HWV 364a). Three Partitas by Telemann from the 1716 Kleine Kammermusik follow for oboe, bassoon and continuo, each in six movements. When Still arrived in Chicago, Sharrow was already the Chicago Symphony's first bassoon (following service as Toscanini's principal in the NBC Symphony), but he followed cellist Janos Starker (CSO, 1953-58) to Indiana University at Bloomington, where principal hornist Philip Farkas joined them after 1960.

The Bach on this disc is a treasurable reminder of Still's storied breath-control and phrasing (remember RCA's 1955 Brahms Violin Concerto recording with Heifetz and Reiner?). Unlike virtually every oboist since antiquity, Still's tone retained the fullness, sweetness, and steadiness that made him a legend even at the age of 66: no whinnying, no tremolo except when he wanted vibrato for expression, and no separately colored registers. All the rest date from 12 years earlier, and benefit from analog sourcing (even so, I'd like to hear future releases digitally remastered by Reference Recordings' 'Professor' Keith Johnson, or Marc Obert-Thorn, whose transfers of historic material are a yellow-brick-road of treasures in various catalogs).

The Handel and Telemann material (with surprisingly much that is charming in the latter's 18 Partita movements) continue the legend. And an oboe-bassoon transcription of Vivaldi G-minor Sonata, RV 58, is a beguiling wrap-up. The good news in addition to this bounty? Nimbus will follow "Baroque Oboe Sonatas" in October with a disc of post-Baroque music including works by Saint-Saëns and Poulenc. Given Still's wide-ranging pedagogy over the years, this disc could have been called Ray Still: A World Legend, although Chicago remains the wellspring of his international celebrity, and still his home after nearly 50 years.

It was both delight and revelation to have heard Ray Still play "live" for 25 years, before I moved from Chicago. Fortunately, recorded documentation rekindles fond memories, many of them indelible, and this CD is a box of Baroque candy.


R.D.(June 2001)